University studies. Scientific journals. Anecdotal accounts. The evidence keeps piling up that touchscreen use (such as smartphones and tablets) is harming our ability to sleep deeply and peacefully. Based on what we know so far, the effects appear to be even worse for young children.
It’s a chicken-and-the-egg scenario — are we unable to sleep because our screens are keeping us awake, or do we end up spending a ton of screen time because we can’t sleep? The jury is still out on exactly why we spend so much time laying in bed swiping on our touchscreens, but there seems to be a consensus: lying in bed, unable to sleep, screen in hand is a common American affliction.
Theories abound as to why this is happening, including the idea that our eyes are not accustomed to so much direct (and artificial) light immediately before attempting to sleep. This stimulation might be interfering with the body’s natural circadian rhythm, which is the internal rest cycle that governs when we sleep and wake. Companies like Apple have tried to address this by introducing features like Night Shift, which switches the color palette on your phone toward the warm end of the spectrum at night, in an attempt to reduce strain and stimulation on your eyes.
Adults are certainly not avoiding this problem, but recent studies like one carried out by Birbeck University in London have focused specifically on what might be happening to today’s children’s sleep patterns — since after all, they are the first generation to grow up with touchscreens a ubiquitous reality in nearly every household.
The findings suggest that babies, toddlers, and young children who spent extra time with touchscreens regularly got less sleep than those who didn’t. Interestingly, this effect seemed to apply even if the usage wasn’t immediately before bed. In fact, each hour that a child spent on a touchscreen during the day correlated with 26 fewer minutes of sleep at night! That’s an astonishing number, and while correlation does not imply causation, it’s definitely noteworthy data that requires us to take a step back and analyze how we regulate our children’s touchscreen usage to maximize a healthy sleep schedule.
There’s no denying it: touchscreens and the devices associated with them are a very real part of 21st century life. The solution can’t be to simply deny or forbid access to these devices, whether we’re talking about children or adults. However, we should be conscious of their ability to disturb our normal sleep habits, and look to the future to determine how we can potentially minimize this impact as we continue to improve on our handheld technology moving forward.