Screen Time and Sleep

These are two topics on which I’ve written quite often, mainly because these days they are right at the top of the agenda when it comes to causes of worry and anxiety for parents (and anyone working with children). The fear levels tend to rise in the weeks of ‘idle leisure’ of school vacations when children feel free to indulge themselves.

Screen time and usage is something really quite new, both for children and adults, and so people struggle with very differing opinions about what’s right, healthy and makes sense without causing harm. For many parents, seeing their child frittering hours of meaningless time on mindless ‘online’ activities, the suggestion that we should be using more ICT in the classroom and as part of the learning process is met with some alarm. The internet is seen (sometimes because of parents’ own experiences) as a place of loss of self-control, the ultimate procrastinator’s pit of damnation. Their fears for their children are very genuine – my child will become habituated, if not addicted, to messing around mindlessly, won’t do what’s necessary to learn and study and will, as a result, be left behind in the race to succeed in life.

Recognising these fears and concerns, many experts have sought to research and experiment to shift these debates from the realms of conjecture to something based on real evidence. From time to time, there are some very good appraisals of where that research has reached. This NPR article I came across recently is such an example;

NPR – Education – On Kids And Screens, A Middle Way Between Fear And Hype

The article takes a sensible and nuanced line, avoiding sensationalizing. Key messages include;

a) Yes, there are risk issues for children, and we should be talking about them. However, that discussion should be balanced by more talk of the benefits to be had.
b) Buying the hardware/ software then handing it over to children and disengaging increases the risks. Adults need to remain engaged with the child and the technology to be sure they really understand what’s happening.
c) With a little creativity, parents can use the internet as much as TV to bring families together, rather than atomising – use of shared screens, watching or absorbing things together and having debates and discussions sparked by the material.
d) Technology use in schools is a problem area – it’s tending to only really be used creatively in the classrooms of odd individual teachers with a ‘techy, nerdy’ leaning rather than being embedded effectively in learning processes. There was a lot of early hype and at times this was more about wowing everyone with something new, rather than being clear that real, genuine learning benefits were resulting. Now, it’s time to move beyond that through more solid changes that work through curriculum, teacher training and school infrastructure development

In short – we need to get less ‘hypey’ about the technology, work to understand what’s happening with it more rationally and make our messages for parents and children far more nuanced about what’s in their best interests.

The topic of sleep in relation to children is usually very strongly entwined with issues of parents’ abilities to establish firm, consistent and effective home routines and habits around sleep issues that become natural and positive for children. As a result, it can be a painful touch point for some parents when they find themselves confronted with the evidence that they’ve not been as good as they might (or as good as some others) at getting effective home routines in place for their children. At times, this debate gets mixed up with the one above related to screen time and usage.

Who, as a parent, wants to willingly confront issues of their own inadequacies or shortcomings? Plus, what really is the evidence on the issues of sleep?

Well, the most obvious evidence is the clear data that shows we’re all sleeping less (often a lot less) than our ancestors accompanied by some fairly weighty evidence that this is all having detrimental effects on our health – physically and mentally. Here’s a recent article that shares some pretty startling data linking later bedtimes in young children with much higher levels of obesity in the teen years;

Stgist – Study says kids who sleep early are less likely to become obese teens

It’s important to understand that an article like this is saying that there is correlation, not cause proven in this statistical data. This does mean that claims can be made about one (late sleeping) can be a pre-cursor or evidence for the other (teen obesity), but not that one is caused by the other. Nevertheless, it all adds to a growing body of evidence for the life disadvantages that come for a child when strong disciplined home routines in the early years are patchy or non-existent.

I believe this has to be seen in a similar perspective to the development or management of positive life habits in people of any age. When Western countries had the big drive against smoking, there was a lot of stigma attached to a person who failed to quit. The suggestion was that such people were weak, lacked willpower or self discipline to do what was necessary to change their bad habit in to something positive. This was made worse by implications that such people weren’t just letting down themselves, but society as a whole!

We now know that such sanctimonious approaches really didn’t help. vast numbers of people were genuinely trying to deal with the issues, but by being stigmatized they were left with the impression that trying and failing (to quit) was almost worse than not trying as it demonstrated very visible human weakness and frailty. What worked for many of these people was an acknowledgement that changing ingrained habits is hard, has its good and bad times, but that each failure is not terminal.

I believe we must see the same approaches to help parents with establishing sleep and bed routines with young children. All are different. Some will get good routines quickly and easily and retain them. others will struggle for a long time to get good routines, but once they have them will retain them. Then there are others who will swing through periods of good and bad habits. We need to do more to help this latter group with strategies, especially when so much of the evidence points to significant benefits and points out an ever growing set of risk factors associated with the bad habits.

In the meantime, one of the most important factors is to be properly informed and to be making decisions from a position of knowledge and understanding.

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