Young children’s evening screen time, sleep, and emotional health

tired child

One of my favorite things about summer is getting together with friends. We’re at the stage in life where many of our friends have young children. Hearing their laughter as they run around the backyard is one of life’s greatest joys. But we know when we’ve kept the kids up too late on these lazy summer nights when the young kids start to fall apart. When kids are tired, it’s nearly impossible to reason with them, and it’s all parents can do to get them home and into bed. And research shows that a lack of sleep among children has some interesting correlations with children’s media use and with their emotional health.

Led by Dr. Amy Nathanson at The Ohio State University, researchers surveyed 402 mothers of kids ages 3-5 about their child’s mobile device use (tablet, hand-held game player), their child’s sleep behaviors, and their child’s “effortful control.” Effortful control refers to children’s ability to control certain behaviors, such as keeping at a task until it’s done and resisting the temptation to do something they’ve been told not to do. Among other things, the study found that when children use mobile media in the evenings, they tend to have later bedtimes and poorer sleep quality, which leads to weaker effortful control. In other words, because media can reduce sleep quality, children are less able to control some of their behaviors.

The solution seems pretty simple then, doesn’t it? If we reduce children’s mobile media use in the evenings, they’ll sleep better, and will thus be more in control of themselves. But that is easier said than done, at least in our house. Evenings, especially after dinner, is our time to unwind, and we often allow tablet time in the evenings as part of that unwinding process.

So, while eliminating screen time in the evenings may seem impossible to some parents, perhaps we can at least reduce young children’s evening screen time. Perhaps we can replace some of that screen time with good, old-fashioned story time, where we sit down and read a book. Maybe we pick up some crayons and color with them. Or maybe we play Chutes and Ladders or Sorry instead (but please don’t make me play Candyland again).

I don’t think screen time is inherently bad (or good, for that matter). But if reducing screen time in the evening can help reduce the meltdowns caused by not getting enough sleep, it certainly seems like it’s worth a shot to give it a go.

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