Dangerous Digital Rituals: Could Your Child be Sleep Deprived?

You’re not wrong if you suspect your kids are spending far more time online than they admit. Where you may be in the dark, however, is that a lot of kids (maybe even yours) are scrolling at night instead of sleeping, a digital ritual that puts their physical and mental health at risk.

And, because sleep and behavior are so intertwined, one family member’s unwise tech habits can quickly spill over and affect the whole family.

Screens over ZZZs

That moody stew your daughter has been dishing up all day or may not be standard teen angst. And the D in math your son brought home for the first time may have little to do with geometric proofs.

While it may not be the first thing that comes to a parent’s mind, sleep deprivation could be a source of a number of family challenges today.

According to a 2019 Common Sense Media study, 68 percent of teens take their devices to their rooms at bedtime, and one-third have the phone with them in bed. Over one-third of those kids and, more than one-fourth of parents admit to waking up to look at their phone at least once a night (usually to check social media or respond to a notification).

What science says

Like water and air, humans need sleep to live. Sleep deprivation over time is a serious condition, especially for children. Medical studies continue to link poor sleep habits to anxiety, reduced cognitive development, obesity, immunity issues, absentmindedness, and impaired judgment. Because depriving the brain of sleep reduces its reaction time, it’s also one of the main causes of road accidents.

How much sleep do they need? The American Academy of Pediatrics recommendations:

  • Children 3-5 should sleep 10 to 13 hours on a regular basis
  • Children 6-12 should sleep 9 to 12 hours on a regular basis
  • Children 13-18 should sleep 8 to 10 hours on a regular basis

Goal: digital responsibility

I recently met a mom in a parenting forum who tackled this very issue by establishing clear ground rules for nighttime device use.

Dana Ahern is the mom of four (ages 7-15) and co-founder (along with husband Adam) of Village Social, a private, safe, “alternative” social network that helps teach kids digital responsibility.

Ahern says establishing ground rules for devices only works if parents stick to them.

“Yes, they [kids] might get mad,” says Ahern. “Yes, they may say they need their phone to listen to music or a meditation app to be able to fall asleep or need the alarm to wake up in the morning. Our solution — get them an Echo Dot or an old fashioned alarm clock radio in place of the phone.”

In the Ahern home, all screens must be shut off at least one hour before bedtime and put on a docking station in the parents’ bedroom. Screen time is tracked via Apple’s Downtime app. And, all homework must be done in the living room (no bedrooms) with an absolute cut-off time of 10 p.m.

Says Ahern, “We’ve found that it’s been relatively easy to get all the kids on this schedule. They don’t fight it. They may, in fact, secretly appreciate knowing we care.”

More ideas to consider:

It’s never “too late” for a good change. Some parents say they’re reluctant to give their kids (especially teens) new technology rules because it’s “too late,” and their kids are too attached to their devices. Even so, with more information linking technology to kids’ mental health, it’s imperative to change course if needed — even if doing so may be difficult.

Reframe the change. Why are kids on their phones all night? Because they want to be and want often overpowers need in this age group. To help kids make tough digital shifts, discuss the personal gains that will result from the change. For instance, consistent quality sleep can help control weight, boost academic and athletic performance, increase energy and immunity levels, reduce drama and conflict, sharpen decision-making, and improve creativity and motivation. In short, quality sleep ignites our superpowers.

Add monitoring muscle. There a number of ways to help keep a child’s screen time on track. One way is to get a monitoring solution. Need to make sure your youngest is only accessing the internet for homework at night? Or limit online game time to 30 minutes a day? Software support could help.

Model good sleep habits. Your kids will be the first ones to call you out if your screen time goes up while they are digitally wasting away. In the same above study, 39 percent of teens said their parents spent too much time on their phones in 2019 (an 11-point jump from 2016).

Any change to your child’s favorite rituals may put a temporary strain on the family dynamic. That’s okay. A little healthy tension, some grumbling, and lingering awkwardness are all side effects of successful digital parenting. Also, remind yourself and your kids as often as you need to that restricting device use — especially at bedtime — isn’t a punishment. It’s a health and safety choice that isn’t negotiable. Translation? Limits equal love.

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