Teens, screens and sleep

January 27th, 2021

Many families struggle to find the right balance for screen use, especially at night. Good sleep is important to teens’ healthy development and there are concerns about how screens might affect this. But it’s a complicated picture.

Sleeping patterns change during the teenage years, thanks to puberty and the demands of study and social lives. Many teens want to go to bed later, wake up later, and get more sleep than other age groups. Experts believe most teens need 8 – 10 hours’ sleep each night, although this can vary.

Then we throw in screens…

A study by the Royal Children’s Hospital found that more than two-thirds of Australian teens are using screens at bedtime. And a survey of more than 160,000 primary and secondary students found that more than half used their phones at night between 10 pm and 6 am at least once a week.

When we use screens at bedtime, they can:

  • Distract us from going to sleep
  • Wake us with messages and alerts
  • Make us feel excited or anxious
  • Expose us to blue light which can impair sleep processes.

Higher rates of sleeping problems have been observed among children and young people who use their phones at bedtime or for many hours each day, in studies done in Australia, the U.S., Europe, Taiwan, Japan, China, Switzerland and Saudi Arabia.

Other studies found that teens tended to sleep better when they stopped using screens after 9 pm or at least 30 minutes before bed.

But it’s complicated…

It may be too simple to say ‘screens cause bad sleep’. Experts are still learning how our sleep relates to the way we use technology. For example, some think that ‘interactive’ screen use such as social media, gaming and browsing YouTube videos poses a bigger threat to our sleep than ‘passive’ activities like watching movies and TV.

Some teens get on their devices at night because they are already awake for other reasons. Other things that can stop teens sleeping well include:

  • Stress and worry
  • Pressure of study, work or after-school activities
  • Early start times
  • Caffeine, junk food or alcohol
  • Not enough exercise or time outdoors
  • Nighttime disturbances like noise or light
  • Mental health problems
  • Irregular routines, including big differences between sleep patterns on weeknights and weekends.

Bullying can be especially harmful. Children and teens who are bullied tend to get less sleep and suffer from more sleeping problems, such as waking up at night, irregular bedtimes and nightmares.

Studies have also found that teens who are on their phones at bedtime are at higher risk of being cyber bullied and sending angry or hurtful messages to other people. We can speculate about why. Are teens more likely to behave badly at night when they are tired? Do bullied teens feel pressure to check their devices at night to see what fresh nastiness is happening online? Are some teens using tech late at night and getting involved in bullying because they are not being supervised by caring adults? Every teen’s experience is different.

What can parents do?

Check with your teens about how well they are sleeping. Do they often have trouble falling asleep, staying asleep, or waking up? Do they often feel tired or irritable or have trouble concentrating? If you’re concerned, contact a trusted GP or headspace centre.

Agree with your teens on a reasonable time to stop using screens at night – and stick to this yourself! Your own habits influence your teens. For example, Raising Children Network advises turning off screens at least an hour before bed. A family charging station in the living room can help to keep phones out of bedrooms.

If your teens are online a lot at night, try to understand why. Some teens feel pressure to stay available to their friends 24/7. They may need your help to set boundaries.

Support your teens to spend time with their friends in person during the day.

Check out the tips for good sleep by Raising Children Network, headspace, and the Sleep Health Foundation. These include:

  • Keep regular bedtimes
  • Get up at similar times on weekdays and weekends
  • Keep napping to a minimum
  • Make bedrooms quiet and dark at night
  • Avoid caffeine in the evenings, including energy drinks and chocolate
  • Get lots of sunlight during the day
  • Have a soothing nighttime routine, such as reading, puzzles, warm baths, drawing or meditation
  • Get physical exercise during the day, but not late at night
  • Explore ‘night mode’ on your devices to reduce the blue light
  • Turn off alerts overnight.

And if you are supporting teens who have been bullied, check how they are sleeping. It may be necessary to connect them with a GP or psychologist for support.