Moody, distracted child? Blame it on bedtime smartphone use

  • Sanchita Sharma, Hindustan Times, New Delhi
  • Updated: Aug 09, 2015 14:37 IST

Most adults struggle with bouts of sleeplessness, but they are not alone in their struggle against unsought wakefulness. One in three children have sleep problems bad enough to affect their mind and body, reported a study of 9,000 school-going children in Delhi and the NCR in the Indian Journal of Sleep Medicine two years ago. New preliminary data from sleep clinics now suggests that bedtime texting and surfing is raising the numbers of underage insomniacs exponentially.

Truncated sleep is common in children with chronic breathing disorders such as asthma, or behavioural disorders such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). But over the past two years, healthy children with unlimited access to smartphones, tablets, gaming consoles and laptops have been reporting having trouble falling and staying asleep.

Most children use phones and go online at bedtime, when they should be winding down to sleep. Unlike passively watching television, interactive devices -- cell phones, tablets, laptops and consoles used to talk, text or play games - act as stimulants because of the rapid response and interactivity involved. Since children have to get up for school irrespective of the time they go to bed, may end up not getting enough sleep.

Brain drain
Frequent use of devices at bedtime not only disrupts sleep but also affects areas of the brain that regulate mood and memory, resulting in mood swings, anxiety, depression, memory problems and behavioural disorders, such as ADHD. When the brain has to work harder in an effort to counteract sleep deficit, its ability to function deteriorates quickly, with memory, concentration and problem-solving capabilities taking a hit, along with the capacity to deal with stresses and control emotions.

While pan-India data on bedtime use of devices is absent, a US study published in the journal Sleep found that an adolescent on average sent 33.5 emails or texts each night when they were supposed to be asleep, messaging an average of 3.7 friends. The study found that 77.5% of the children had persistent problems falling asleep, with all waking up at least once each night to use a device. The average number of messages sent each month at sleep time was 3,404, usually over periods ranging from 10 minutes to four hours after bedtime.

The older the children were, the later they went to bed, and the more time they spent with their devices at bedtime. Boys were more likely to surf the net and play online games, while girls were more likely to text and make cell phone calls. So significant is use among children that US researchers have suggested phone and email use be made part of routine evaluations of people with problems sleeping.

Sleep also hurts children physically, though not as much as sleep-deprived adults who doze off at the wheel. The lack of sleep raises the chances of injuries even among toddlers and preschool children, reported a study in the journal of Public Health Nursing. It found that children who don't get enough sleep were twice as likely to hurt themselves than those who were well rested.

Sleep on this
School-going children need eight to nine hours of sleep a day for healthy growth, development and learning. Going to bed at the same time and establishing a consistent bedtime routine (the activities that occur just before lights out) helps children to sleep longer and deeper, reported a study across 14 countries in the journal Sleep (

The survey of 10,085 mothers from 14 countries, including India, reported that less than half the infants, toddlers and preschoolers surveyed had a regular bedtime routine every night. The study found that children with a consistent bedtime routine had better sleep outcomes, including earlier bedtimes, falling asleep faster, sleeping longer, waking up fewer times during the night. Children with a bedtime routine every night slept for an average of more than an hour longer per night than children who didn't have one. According to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, bedtime routines include setting up relaxing activities preceding bedtime, such as a reading or listening to music.

As sleep patterns are set early on in life, device overuse may get children dependent on external stimulation before falling asleep, which would lead to a vicious cycle of wakefulness and sleep deprivation. Apart from physical injuries, sustained sleeplessness lowers immunity, raises stress levels and the risk of almost every known disease, from heart disease and obesity to depression and the common cold.

Making bedtime less elastic and putting devices in the sleep mode at night for both is a good way to wind down after a long day.

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