Is screen time before bedtime affecting my child's sleep?


Gone are the days of the good ol' bedtime story and a cup of warm milk for sending kids of to beddy-bye. These days, parents find it so much easier to pass them a smartphone to watch some bedtime shows.

On the surface, screen time appears to get the job done as a pre-bedtime ritual for getting kids sleepy – it helps them to relax, unwind and most importantly, keeps them happy. Unfortunately, a growing body of research is proving that screen time before bedtime is detrimental to your child’s sleep.

Is screen time before bedtime 1Photo: Active Health

The disruptive effects of screen time on your child’s sleep

• It causes your child to sleep later

The most obvious way in which screen time disrupts your child’s sleep is that it pushes back bedtime for your child. Children love the moving graphics, the cheerful music and the seemingly endless on-demand entertainment they get from the screen, and you bet they will give up their sleep for more screen time. When screen time is unsupervised or curfews aren’t strictly imposed, our kids end up pushing their bedtime back (an unceasing torrent of “just one more show”), causing them to lose precious minutes or even hours of sleep.

• It keeps your child alert and awake

Even if curfews are strictly enforced, the very nature of engaging in screen time will make it harder for your child to fall asleep. First of all, content that keeps your child engrossed also keeps their brains alert; way too alert for sleep. Besides fuelling them with adrenaline, screen time also messes with the expression of sleep hormone in your child’s body. The blue light emitted from digital screens disrupts the production of melatonin, which is responsible for causing feelings of sleepiness.

• It can lead to insomnia

Screen time before bedtime doesn’t only keep your child up late at night and make it harder for them to fall asleep, it also heightens your child’s risk of developing insomnia, a sleep condition in which sleep disturbances are experienced over a prolonged period of time, often lasting more than a month. A study conducted last year by the American Academy of Sleep Medicine found that teenagers who engaged in more screen time before bedtime were more likely to experience insomnia. The effects are similar with younger children and even toddlers as young as 2 years old – about half the children in an Australian study experienced disrupted sleep. Most of the surveyed children engaged in about 90 minutes of screen time on a daily basis.

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Side effects of insufficient sleep

We all know how difficult it is to function when we are running low on sleep. Our focus and alertness falter, and we can’t make ourselves move faster than at a snail’s pace. For children, however, the signs that they aren’t sleeping enough can be a bit different – not all sleep-deprived children behave like walking zombies. Sometimes, unusually high levels of energy akin to hyperactivity is the result of not getting enough sleep. Children also experience other side effects to their physical and mental health when they don’t get enough sleep, which is extremely worrying.

• Higher risk of obesity

When children don’t get enough sleep, they can be a lot less physically active and end up spending more time engaged in sedentary activities. Sleep-deprived children who engage in considerable amounts of screen time also tend to have poorer dietary habits such as eating more junk food, which contributes to the problem of obesity as well. While obesity itself may not be that serious a problem since children's bodies are in a state of development, being obese can put your child at risk of developing type 2 diabetes, which is a growing health epidemic amongst young children in recent times.

• Depression and other mental health disorders

A lack of sleep is often associated with depression, anxiety and other mental health orders, not just in children but in adults as well. This is because quality, restorative sleep is extremely important in alleviating mental stress (children experience stress too and are perhaps more sensitive to its effects). Sleep also has a huge impact on a child or teenager’s mood. Children who don’t get enough sleep are often unmotivated, uninterested, irritable and even aggressive.

• Problems at school

A short attention span and trouble concentrating are side effects of not enough sleep, so naturally, this could lead to problems with academic performance. Children who stay up late on their devices will tend to be sleepier in classes and this affects their ability to learn and recall information.

Clearly, making sure your child gets enough sleep is extremely important. The big question then is, how much sleep does your child need? How much screen time is allowed before it starts becoming disruptive?

Is screen time before bedtime 2Photo: Active Health

How much sleep (and screen time) your child should be getting

The general trend is that younger children need more sleep and hence less screen time should be allowed. These are the sleep and screen time recommendations according to the revised Singapore Physical Activity Guidelines (SPAG):

• Babies

0-3 months old: 14-17 hours of sleep

4-11 months old: 12-15 hours of sleep 

Not recommended to give screen time

• Toddlers

1-2 years old: 11-14 hours of sleep time

Not recommended to give screen time

• Pre-schoolers

3-4 years old: 10-13 hours of sleep

5-6 years old: 9-13 hours of sleep

Recommended to keep screen time to less than 1 hour.

• Primary school children

7-13 years old: 9-12 hours of sleep

• Secondary school children 

14-17 years old: 8-10 hours of sleep

For primary school and secondary school children, it may be difficult to indicate a suitable recommendation for screen time as they are more likely to be engaged in digital learning for school-related purposes. Furthermore, enforcement of such measures may likely result in a retaliatory response.

It all boils down to your discretion as a parent to observe if they are spending abnormal amounts of time on their screens such that it interferes with family time or with your child’s social life. Ultimately, less screen time is always better as it will help your child get more quality sleep. No matter how old your child is, quality sleep is of utmost importance to ensuring good physical and mental health.

Ensuring your child gets enough sleep

• Limit screen time

The most obvious way to help your child get more sleep is definitely by limiting their screen time. For babies and toddlers, avoid exposing them to screen time as they are too young. For children in pre-school and primary school, imposing screen time curfews is extremely important. You can designate specific time slots for them to watch TV or use their phones, or you can give them a specific time limit throughout the day although this will be harder to keep track of. It will also be a good idea to disallow screen time during mealtimes, one hour before bedtime and during family outings.

• Set a good example

Children are very impressionable and mimic what most adults do. Whatever habits you want your child to embody, be it sleeping early or spending less time on screens, you must exhibit it first. So, put away your smartphones and laptops at home (or at least don’t use them in front of your child) and keep to the TV curfew limits that you designated. Practice going to bed earlier too. It will not just get your child to sleep earlier – it will be good for you as well!

• Make sure the bedroom is conducive for sleep

Optimising the bedroom environment is an integral aspect of practising good sleep hygiene, which comprises all the healthy sleep habits that your child should have. The right bedroom environment can help your child fall asleep much faster and stay asleep better. Conducive sleep environments are all about dim lighting, cool temperatures, and cosy sheets and pillows.

• Have a regular bedtime routine

Adopting a regular bedtime routine is another important aspect of practising good sleep hygiene. Consistency in adhering to this routine will help your child recognise when it’s time to sleep and this will make it easier for them to fall asleep. There are many different types of bedtime routines you can engage in with your child, from taking a warm bath and brushing teeth to reading a book to bedtime yoga. The bedtime routine can also comprise of several steps, such as starting off with a bath, picking books together, then reading a bedtime story and finally ending off with a lullaby, prayer or a snuggle. Feel free to incorporate other things, as long as you ensure that the activities are sufficiently relaxing and easy enough to repeat every subsequent night.

Is screen time before bedtime 3Photo: Active Health

At the end of the day, getting quality sleep is of the utmost importance to a child’s well-being. Screen time is playing an increasingly bigger role in the lives of our children and we should take active steps to protect them from its disruptive effects. Apart from following the guidelines above, you can also talk to our Active Health Coaches at our Active Health Labs located island-wide for more sleep-related advice. Don’t sleep on it, start making sure your kids are getting enough sleep!

► READ: More articles and tips to Rest Better

Topics: Screen Time, Rest Better