Getting my six-year-old daughter to bed should be listed as cardio. I know that sounds like an exaggeration, but it isn’t. Once I finally get that little jabber-wagon, can’t-stay-focused, run-downstairs-every-five-seconds busybody in her pajamas, teeth brushed, and in bed, I am sweating. And not a little. A lot. Like, pit stains sweat. I don’t want to state the obvious, but I dread getting her to bed because it’s exhausting, and sometimes after a long day, when I just can’t, and she is fighting me like crazy, I break the “no screens at bedtime” rule, give her an iPad, and let her fall asleep watching Boss Baby.
Unfortunately, after reading a new study out of Arizona State University, I might have to give up on that practice and keep running the marathon each night. A research team spent a week following 547 children, aged 7-9 years. The parents kept daily diaries that tracked the children’s media use and sleep patterns. They also completed a survey that asked about their children’s temperament, including their ability to self-regulate behavior. Plus, they had the kids use these futuristic wrist watches called actigraphs that tracked their movement and also ambient light. The actigraph data gave the research team detailed information about when and how long the children slept, and I kind of want to get one of these for my teenager.
Anyway, what they found was that children who did not use screens before bed during the week slept 23 minutes more, and went to bed 34 minutes earlier, than children who used media most nights during the week. Now I know what you are thinking: 23 minutes and 34 minutes combined is less than one hour, and honestly, that’s not much time. And with a child like my six year old, sacrificing a little sleep on her end might make a huge difference on my mental health.
However, it’s important to realize exactly how much good, consistent sleep can impact a young child in everything from grades to weight gain. According to the CDC’s National Youth Risk Behavior Survey from 2018, “A” students get an average of 30 more minutes of sleep per night (6.71 hours) when compared to “D” and “F” students (6.16 hours). Obviously going to sleep on time, and getting enough sleep, is important when placing your child in a position to do better in school.
Another study performed at Penn State in 2018 found that children who had irregular bedtimes early in childhood had a greater chance of increased body weight. Children who had an age-appropriate bedtime at the age of nine had a healthier BMI at the age of 15 than those who had no strict bedtime routine.
I’m not trying to freak you out. What I am trying to stress is that regular, consistent sleep is pretty important for children across the board, particularly when they are young, and losing just shy of an hour of sleep because of screen time can have a larger impact down the road.
One of the more fascinating parts of the ASU study was that the children whose sleep was most impacted by screen time before bed scored low on a personality trait the researchers called “effortful control.” Leah Doane, associate professor of psychology at ASU and senior author on the paper, defined it this way: “Kids who score low on measures of effortful control are the ones who struggle to wait to unwrap a present or are easily distracted.”
Now, if I were to write a character description of my six-year-old, it would for sure use the words “easily distracted.” She is a lot like that dog in the movie UP, always looking for squirrels. Plus she has a hard time not opening her siblings’ presents on their birthdays, so you can just forget about her not trying to open her own presents. Chances are, she would show up on the “low effort control” spectrum. So yeah, according to this study, she definitely shouldn’t be watching screens before bed, even when I’m about to crack — which kind of sucks, but such is life.
I know for a fact that getting my children to bed is probably the worst part of my parenting, second only to getting up early in the morning with them, so I understand the struggle. But according to this study, and other studies on the importance of getting children enough sleep, it’s probably best to label screen time before bed as a hard rule on the “no-no” list. I know, it sucks. And yes, the kids will complain. And as parents, we might need a little more ice cream or another glass of our favorite beverage before bed. But long term, it will be for the best. So hold strong fellow parents. We will survive this journey without screen time before bed. Fingers crossed.