Katie Duffy-Schumacher, a Rockville Centre author and mother of two, said the...

Katie Duffy-Schumacher, a Rockville Centre author and mother of two, said the phone "is ringing and dinging 24/7 from notifications about who said what on Snapchat and Instagram." Credit: Dawn McCormick

A panel of sleep experts headed by a Stony Brook University professor has a message for parents: Pry those cellphones out of their hands before bedtime.

The 16-member panel, brought together by the National Sleep Foundation, reviewed more than 500 studies involving screen time and its impact on the sleeping habits of children, adolescents and adults. They agreed it was detrimental for kids, especially if they are watching just before they go to bed.

“The time that a person is on their device, whether it's a video game, smartphone or computers, cuts into time they could be sleeping,” said Lauren Hale, a professor at the Stony Brook University Renaissance School of Medicine’s Program of Public Health. She is chair of the National Sleep Foundation’s international panel that published the consensus statement on digital screen use and sleep this week.

“It’s not like we are on our devices for 10 minutes at a time,” Hale said. “We are on our devices for hours at a time.”

WHAT TO KNOW

  • A new review of research by a panel of experts concluded that screen use causes some children and adolescents to lose sleep and have a poor quality of sleep.
  • What a child or teen watches before they go to sleep can also impact their sleep.
  • Experts say parents should limit screen time and not let kids and teens keep the phones with them all night in their bedrooms.

And what kids are watching impacts their mood for better or worse.

“They could be stimulated or excited after playing a video game with their friends or anxious and ruminating …'Why did they go to the movies and not invite me?' It’s that fear of missing out,” Hale said.

The panel was not able to reach a consensus on whether the light from screens impairs sleep health for children, adolescents or adults, or if screen time affects adult sleep.

Katie Duffy-Schumacher, a former teacher, mother of two and author from Rockville Centre, has spent years lecturing and giving workshops about how parents and kids can safely navigate technology while learning to take important breaks from it.

“At first they were getting their phones at the start of middle school, but now it's elementary school, when you need your sleep the most,” she said. The phone “is ringing and dinging 24/7 from notifications about who said what on Snapchat and Instagram. So that dopamine rush overrides their natural desire for sleep. This whole cycle starts, they keep checking the phone for 10 minutes, which turns to 20 minutes and that turns to two hours.”

Even with all the existing studies, and what parents might have suspected all along, Hale said that the panel’s work was important because it concluded that more screen time directly impacts sleep and it wasn't just poor sleepers spending more time scrolling.

She said the panel also considered factors such as the impact of the light from the screen, what was playing on the screen, whether timing of screen use matters, and which age groups are more vulnerable than others.

They agreed that, in general, screen use impairs sleep health for children and adolescents between the ages of 5 and 19 and the content of what they are watching matters. Children should avoid stimulating or upsetting material before bed. They also agreed that parents can use strategies and interventions to counter these potentially negative effects.

Some Long Island parents who have battled with their own kids over screen use have come up with rules and restrictions to cut down screen use before bedtime.

Gillian Dunn, of Northport, said she has set firm screen time limits for her 15-year-old son and 12-year-old twins.

“In the morning, they have to be all ready for school before they have access to their phones,” she said. “Once they get home, their homework needs to be done before they have their phones.”

Thirty minutes before bedtime, the phones are brought to the kitchen where they remain all night to charge.

“It was very challenging to start,” Dunn said. “But I just was consistent with it. Having a rule just made it easier to keep everyone on task and on schedule … I have always prioritized sleep for myself and for my kids.”

Northport parents Ariane Amsz-Fields and Jeantet Fields also enforce strict rules on screen time for their 9-year-old son and 12-year-old daughter.

“We don’t allow technology upstairs in their rooms,” Amsz-Fields said. “They have an Alexa so they can listen to music.”

Hale, the Stony Brook professor, said more research is needed to measure the impact of screen time on the sleep of children under the age of 5 and older adults.

Hale said keeping phones out of kids' rooms at bedtime and throughout the night is the most important step parents can take to mitigate the impact of screen time. 

“Kids should have a consistent bedtime and a relaxing routine before bedtime,” she said. “Talk with your kids and family about why screens may interfere with sleep so they understand.”

Jeantet Fields said he has taken a “draconian” approach to keeping his kids off the phones for an hour before bedtime.

“We have separate internet for the kids that goes dark at 9 p.m.,” he said. “You can talk to a 12-year-old until you are blue in the face and they are not going to want to turn their screen off.”

Tips to improve sleep

  • Avoid stimulating or upsetting material near bedtime
  • Implement early, regular, and relaxing bedtime routines without screens
  • Set time limits around screen use, especially in the evening and at night
  • Parents should talk with children about how using tech and screens can impact sleep
  • Parents should model appropriate nighttime screen use for children

Source: National Sleep Foundation

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