Sleep and screens: Get an alarm clock!

From the moment I brought my first child home from the hospital, sleep -- for both him and me -- took center stage. We spent years with him, and then my daughter, working on getting to sleep, sleeping through the night, sleeping in a big bed, going to sleep alone, and more.

Now that my children are 14 and 16, you’d think I would be done with sleep training. But no, their iPhones have thrown a new wrinkle into the mix, threatening to undo all the hard work we put in earlier by disrupting their sleep. And it’s not my imagination. Recent research shows that time with small screens at night disrupts and negatively impacts sleep patterns.

In February 2015, the journal Pediatrics published a study of 2048 4th- and 7th-graders which shows that sleeping with a small screen decreased sleep time by 20 minutes, usually because of delayed bedtimes. The association between small screens and reduced sleep increases with age.


In its conclusion the study’s findings “caution against unrestricted screen access in children’s bedrooms.”

What to do?

I’m once again focusing my energy on instilling good sleep habits in my kids. Here’s how:

  • Agree on phone turn-off times.     

We have them and it’s been a good thing--But it is true that my daughter sometimes goes over the cut off. For example, sometimes after 9 p.m., the agreed upon time, she will say she needs to text a friend about this or that for school the next day. We usually let her but not always--we not only want her to respect the limit, but we want to instill in her better organization skills and plan ahead before 9 p.m. comes.


  • Keep the phones out of the bedrooms after turn-off time.
Don’t let the “It’s my alarm” argument dissuade you. Get a separate alarm clock --and even better, an alarm clock with a radio so during they day and night they will have access to music without needing their phones.
Recently we moved and moved in temporary housing and didn’t have most of our stuff. At first I didn’t notice that my 16-year-old son had started to use his cell phone as his alarm clock. Prior he had kept it out of his room.  When I reminded him of not having the phone in the room at first there was a bit of anger from him. Frankly he was liking having his phone right by him. We had some calm conversations and I bought him a good alarm clock. And after a week of not having the phone in his room he said how glad he was to not have that distraction at his side all night.
  • Many authorities recommend that your kids read, draw, write,  or do other non-screen related activity at least an hour before bed.  
Screen time can be activating, whether it is the frenzy of communicating with many people over text and social media, playing video games or whether it is watching the  latest tv shows, which are increasingly action packed, with negative language and violence. So the goal is to have all that activity to end a good amount of time before bed.For teenagers it is probably not realistic to say a whole hour before bedtime. In fact they may well really want to be checking this and that before going off to bed--but the key is if they don’t have their phones in their room then they will indeed read or write before falling asleep.
  • Educate them about how the blue light of screens impact sleep hormones and will keep them from having good sleep, which in turn impacts their ability to concentrate, do well at school and maintain a healthy weight. This should not be just one conversation, but several ones where the latest research on screens and sleep can be discussed.
One of my favorite areas of research concerns how well a person can remember what they have studied as a function of hours of sleep. So let’s say a student studies geometry on Tuesday and goes to bed at 11 at night and wakes up at 6am, vs another kid that does not go to bed until 12 at night and also wakes up at 6.  The student that went to bed at 11 will recall significantly more than the person who went to bed at 12.  Of course neither student got enough sleep!



What has worked for you to get your child to stop using devices at night?