Kids, screens and sleep

July 5, 2023

Professor Sarah Blunden (MAPS, BAPsych (Hons), MSocSc, MClinPsy, PhD) is a clinical psychologist specialising in sleep health and founder/director of SensibleSleep ( She is Head of Paediatric Sleep Research and Professor of Clinical Psychology at Appleton Institute of Behavioural Science, Central Queensland University, Australia. Her interests lie in the effects of sleep on wellbeing and physical and mental health.

Kids, screens and sleep

Children of today use technology (e.g. screens) to facilitate learning, understanding and information seeking but its rapid increase comes with some caveats about detrimental effects, particularly on their sleep. Good sleep is related to all aspects of physical and mental health. Here we discuss the impact of screens on sleep (including issues around gaming, and engaging with tablets and mobile phones at night) and how this can negatively affect our children’s physical and mental health and development.

Sleep is one of the pillars of good health, so we need the right amount of sleep, good quality (not restless or fragmented) sleep at the right time of the day (most sleep should happen during the dark hours) and regular sleep and wake times, even on weekends (because our internal body clocks – circadian rhythms – need regularity to function correctly). Sleep is the master body clock and will affect all other body systems.

Today’s children and young people utilise screens a lot at bedtime, and they often describe this usage as relaxing and wind down time. But left unchecked, the use of screens at bedtime disrupts quantity, quality and regularity of sleep.

In terms of quantity, at bedtime young people may use screens to engage with streaming services, gaming or with their social group, all popular activities in different groups of young people. Screen usage takes up sleep time. These activities are also exciting and/or physiologically arousing and the opposite to what is needed to create a calm mind and body to fall asleep, delaying sleep onset time and making morning wake ups to get to school more difficult. Furthermore, this sleep loss during the school week makes sleeping in on the weekend more likely, which exacerbates very irregular wake times across the week and the weekends. This is a major disruption to the sleep body clock and disrupts mood, appetite and behavioural regulation.

In terms of quality, the light in screens is very intense and, when close to the eyes (e.g. with mobile technology), can specifically decrease and delay secretion of our natural sleep producing hormone melatonin, needed to make us sleepy and stay asleep. Even having large screens (e.g. TVs) in the day in the background can affect sleep at night because the body and mind get used to constant noise and visual stimulation, making calming down for bed harder and harder. In fact, the higher the number of TV’s in a household and the longer they are switched on, even in the day, the worse the effect on young people’s sleep and the greater the incidence of nightmares. And of course, this is worse when the content displayed is not classified for children, such as the nightly news broadcasts of disasters and death.

What can we do?

As parents, we can regulate the time and the timing of screens across the day but especially at bedtime, allowing at least 60 minutes of screen free time before sleep onset. Be aware that young people copy parental behaviour and the more we use our screens inappropriately the more they will copy. Our young people, due to their age and immaturity, do not have the skills to scrutinise and triage what they may access just before sleep onset, which can leave them ruminating alone and worrying about what they have seen. Left unchecked, this can have lasting impacts on how they understand themselves and the world they live in. The content of what our young people see on screens must be within our power to control.

As families and school communities, we need to be educated about the detrimental effects of screens on our body systems, most particularly sleep because sleep affects all other body systems. Technology and screens are here to stay, so it is very important that we find the balance whereby young people can use screens at night time to their advantage and not to their detriment. Organisations like Children and Media Australia have an important role to play in this space.

As a society, we need to be clear about what we want from technology in screens, and specifically what we don’t want and what we expect from our policy makers in terms of regulation. The voices of the community need to be heard as much as the voices of vested financial interests. The dangers of screens, and most importantly the content of what is on them, must be regulated from a policy level and embedded in the family unit.

When sleep is dysregulated, our young people are moodier, sadder, more anxious, more aggressive, more irritable, less attentive, less able to learn, less resilient and productive, less confident, more overweight, sicker, more likely to use drugs and alcohol and have a higher risk of suicide. Surely this list is a wake up call to regulate screen use in our young people.

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