Television viewing and videogaming have previously been linked with poor sleep patterns in children.  Now, use of touchscreen devices like iPads and smartphones by infants and toddlers has been linked to sleep problems.

A survey of 715 parents with children under three years of age was conducted by researchers at the University of London. 75 per cent of the babies and toddlers were looking at touchscreens on devices like iPads and smartphones every day, parents said.

The results found that children who played with touchscreens slept less at night and more in the day. Across the board they got around 15 minutes less sleep for every hour of touchscreen use.

Early Excessive Screen Use

Dr. Tim Smith, psychologist at Birkbeck, University of London, and study co-author, speaking to CTV News said he was surprised by the outright amount of time children appear to be spending with touchscreens.

“Some of them had quite excessive use of up to two hours; before they’re old enough to walk, before they’re speaking.”

Although research into the long-term impact of poor sleep during early development remains limited, findings so far agree that shorter sleep duration is associated with negative developmental outcomes.

In this study, 51 percent of children who had daily access to touchscreens were between the ages of six to 11 months. 92 percent were between 25 to 36 months.

“These results indicate that the popularity and accessibility of touchscreen devices has led to high levels of usage by babies and toddlers, and this is associated with reduced sleep,” said Smith. “Future research is now needed to build on this initial study to try and understand whether touchscreen use is causing sleep problems and how types of use may mitigate these risks.”

Fine Motor Skills

Four possible reasons driving the shorter sleep time were highlighted by the study’s authors.

  • Media content may elevate psychological and physiological arousal, making it harder to fall asleep

  • Bright blue light from touchscreens may suppress the sleep hormone melatonin

  • Heritable traits such as sensation seeking or hyperactivity may lead to both irregular sleep patterns and increased tablet use

  • Electronic device use may directly displace the time that children have available for sleep

On the positive use, those young children actively playing with touchscreens, in other words, swiping and interacting rather than just passively watching, do develop fine motor skills more rapidly.

Commenting on the 15 minutes less sleep for every hour on touchscreens, Dr Smith, speaking to BBC News, said:

“It isn’t a massive amount when you’re sleeping 10-12 hours a day in total, but every minute matters in young development because of the benefits of sleep."

He recommends the best thing is to have children follow similar rules for amount of time spent in front of the TV, and avoid touchscreens in the hour before bedtime.

Cheung, C. H. M. et al. Daily touchscreen use in infants and toddlers is associated with reduced sleep and delayed sleep onset Sci. Rep. 7, 46104; doi: 10.1038/srep46104

Image: Scott & Elaine van der Chijs CC-BY

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