Last year I had a lively debate with my literary agent about children’s screen time. She had mentioned that there was a gap in the market for a book about the toxic effects of screen time for children and did I want to write a book about this? Many parents worry about the negative effects of screen time and really want to know about safe levels of screen time.
Being an evidence-based science nerd, I mentioned to her that I had not seen any good evidence for there being any negative impact on children of screen-time (based on length of time, not content). I admit, that I am not doing research in this area and so have not been ploughing journals and databases for evidence on this area, but in general, I go to conferences and child psychiatry meetings and get to hear about important research that is brewing (if there is any) before results are released to the press and general public and I had seen nothing on screen-time ‘being toxic’ that was definitive or evidenced based and that would warrant a book. I myself love the telly and happily watch anything from Newsnight to Love Island. On my days off, I’m quite happy to watch Flog it! and Cash in the Attic too. I’m good at putting boundaries on my phone, but admit to watching videos of pug dogs and dancing cats first thing in the morning or late at night. I am not ashamed to say I love screen time, it’s how I relax and I certainly don’t feel that my life is being ruined by screens.
There are many confusions in the screen-time debate that deserve clarification:
- Different people mean different things when they talk about ‘screen time’. Screen time could mean any TV, smart phones, internet, gaming, social media or any time doing anything on a computer. Most adults who spend their day working on a computer are in effect spending most of the day on ‘screen-time’. Is this detrimental? Excel can certainly drive me crazy at times, but I’m not sure this is what is meant when most people say that ‘screen time is bad for your health’. What about cooking with a YouTube video – is this screen time? What about my children’s favourite (not)…playing piano to ABRSM practice partner? Does this count? As screens are used for a myriad of activities which are getting more and more interactive, these days defining ‘screen time’ is rather more tricky than it sounds and we should be specific when we (particularly ‘experts’) talk about ‘the ills of screen-time’ and what it is exactly that we mean.
- Most of the weariness about screen time seems to be a judgement call on content rather than the fact that entertainment is brought by a screen itself. I think that we can all agree on children staying away from pornography and having age-appropriate certificates for internet content because beyond a doubt exposure to inappropriate content is harmful to children (violence, sex, aggression, extremist content, websites on how to build bombs and slit wrists etc.) – I don’t think anyone finds this contentious. But beyond this judgements on screen time being detrimental seem to be related to our own personal sense of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ content. I’m sure most parents would not complain about their children watching the news or Blue Planet. What about YouTube? Does it make a difference if your children are using YouTube videos to make loom bands or bake cakes or if they are watching YouTube videos of YouTubers watching other YouTubers play video games? Does it make a difference if your children are playing chess on the computer as opposed to MarioKart? If so, what we are really saying here is not that screen time is bad, but we should raise the standard of programming or that there should be parental control over access to content. How children use social media is a separate debate to absolute screen time usage and relates again to content rather than screen time-limit discussions. The best way to be aware of and happy about the content of what your children are accessing is to have an open, respectful and trusting relationship with your children. This takes time and energy to build but will make everything in your life easier, not just reduce screen time arguments.
- Association does not mean causation. Type in negative effects of screen time into Google and I am sure you will get a whole list of science-sounding information about the ills of screen time. But the same can be said if you type in vaccination and autism, deodorant and cancer and any number of absurdities. There are association studies between screen-time and health factors for sure e.g. obese children watch more TV and depressed children use more social media, but these do not mean that the screen-time is CAUSING negative effects on health. Is it because children that don’t like exercise like to watch TV, or did the TV ‘make’ children stop exercising? Does social media ‘make’ children depressed or do depressed children get drawn to social media due to their existing insecurity? Does TV make children behave badly or do parents of badly behaved children struggle more to get children off TV? Does gaming stop children doing their homework or do children that don’t want to do their homework play computer games? It is difficult to untangle and at present, the jury is still out, but my wager would be that simply removing screens from households of obese children would not miraculously lead to the child suddenly taking up sports, nor would removing the screen from the gamer lead to more homework being done.
- It’s not what children are doing, it’s what they’re not doing. The only evidence for the ills of the screen is that it takes up time that children could be doing something more worthwhile. But in this regard, the screen is no different for instance than an intense sedentary hobby like stamp-collecting or knitting. Both of these hobbies have some merits (as does watching TV), but done for hours at a time can lead to inactivity and lack of social interaction. The solution is not to ban screens but to encourage other interests.
The reality is that it is difficult to do any proper ‘gold standard’ research in this area, as this would require an ‘experiment’ where large cohorts are required to reduce or stop screen time altogether and measures of before and after are taken and confounders are taken into account (e.g. socio-economic status, parental educational level, child’s innate personality). These experiments are generally expensive and unpopular (most people will not react well to being randomly told to stop screen-time and if they volunteer to do this, they are de-facto a biased sample) and very hard to enforce (it’s difficult to check study participants are not having sneaky peeks at their TVs and phones), but I am sure that some researchers may try and do this kind of study in the future.
In the meantime I was very pleased to see that earlier this month the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health Guidelines on screen-time took heed of available research (or lack of it) and stated that there is no evidence for a ‘safe’ screen time limit because screen-time has not been proven to be ‘unsafe’. Please read the report, but in summary the guidance was:
- Children should not use screens before bedtime ( this is as blue light can affect sleep)
- Children should not snack while using screens (to prevent obesity)
- Children should have other opportunities for exercise (to prevent obesity)
- Screen time should be under the control of parents, at a level that they feel appropriate
And so, this is the uncomfortable truth about screen-time. Instead of asking: ‘is screen-time toxic?’, we should spend more time asking ‘How can I support my child’s social skills?’, ‘How can I improve my child’s diet and exercise?’, ‘How can I support my child to read/ write/ draw?’, ‘How can I improve my relationship with my child so that they want to spend time with me?’, ‘How can I improve respect in my relationship with my child so that they will comply with my instructions?’.
It may be convenient to blame ‘screens’ for all the ills of our children, but ultimately, it is parental responsibility to control screen-time in younger children and ensure that they are accessing appropriate content and doing other activities that are enhancing their development (physical activity, creative activity, social activity) instead of/ or as well as screens. It is also parental responsibility to teach children to control their own screen-time so that as adolescents they can make their own appropriate life choices. All the above is really tough and not necessarily what we thought we were signing up for when we had kids, but the reality is that if we don’t do it, who will?
If you are having trouble starting on rules around screen-time in your primary aged children, here are my family’s house rules on screen-time (but of course you should develop your own that work for you):
- Encourage other activities (play dates, reading, street dance, baking, swimming etc) from a young age BEFORE allowing access to lots of screen-time. This way, your child has formed good friendships and outside interests which they will want to continue and are willing to give up screen time for. Starting friendships and new activities can be daunting for some children and screen-time is a good excuse not to do things that are daunting, therefore: establish other strong interests first.
- Be good with boundaries. Parents that are good at setting boundaries in general (e.g. for bed time, eating greens, homework) generally don’t have problems establishing boundaries for screen time. The issue for parents is usually about being able to set and stick to boundaries in general not anything specific to screen time. If you have difficulties with boundary setting, get help to improve this. The Incredible Years is a very good behavioural management book for parents.
- Demonstrate your own ability to control screen-time. If you are always on your screen, then most children will do as you do rather than as you say.
- No TV between 9am-5pm (enforced about 90% of the time in term time, less so in the holidays). Within this (as there are plenty of hours before 9am if your children are early risers like mine and after 5pm), my children regularly have access to between 2-4 hours screen-time a day (aged 9 and 11) and I do not feel it has made them morally corrupt/ aggressive/ obese/ brain dead/ socially inept children. I have however had to endure a rather tiresome programme called Nicky, Ricky, Dicky and Dawn – episodes of which could lead me to stick pins in my eyes. Unsanctioned TV use leads to no TV for any children for a week – once you’ve enforced this once or twice, they tend to learn not to break the rule .
- No screen time until homework/ music practice/ chores are completed (enforced with 70% success). This rule both limits screen use and also ensures that there are no arguments hauling children off devices to do homework, the homework has to be done first.
- iPad which can be used between 9am-5pm is locked by password under parental control so that I am largely in charge of when and where this is accessed and for what purpose.
- No screens at the dinner table for any one including adults (enforced with 90% success rate by me and 50% by father), although as a family we do like a regular TV dinner all together watching Bake-Off or something similar. I work part time and generally have already gassed enough to the kids about their day and my day, but if this hasn’t happened and dinner is the only time to engage your children in chat, then I would recommend dinner table chat over a TV dinner.
- Try and avoid giving a child a phone until secondary school. Believe me, if your children are losing friends solely because they don’t have a phone, these are not the best friends for your child to keep anyway. If they are struggling with friendships, the solution is to support this, not to buy them a phone/ trainers/ designer clothes to keep these so-called friends.
- Keep going. Like with any family, there are occasional rows in my household about getting children off the TV/ iPad , but these are once in a while and part of life and no reason to abandon all control or feel like a failure. Remember, tomorrow is a new day to try again.
I’m told that the whole screens issue becomes worse as children become teenagers so I’m sure that the house rules will need revising, but for the time being this has worked so far. And as an avid viewer of reality shows like ‘Faking it’ and ‘The Real World’ as a teen, I’m now a psychiatrist: the ultimate real-world people watcher. My agent’s husband is also an advocate of avid film and telly watching as a child and he is now a film director – so go figure.
It’s not all bad…
Lil Bro: Mummy – I can’t sleep
Me: Please, its past nine o’clock, what are you doing still up? You have to go to sleep now or you’ll be exhausted at school tomorrow! [Plus I just got started on this week’s episode of “This is US” and a tub of ice cream and I really fancy a rest!]
Lil Bro: But I can’t sleep.
Me: Just close your eyes and lie still! [Grrr]
I’m sure many of you are nodding in sympathy at this experience. Lil Bro who usually has no difficulty getting to sleep is having a spate of “I can’t get to sleep”. We have tried cuddling, cajoling, comforting, reassuring and now we are at the frankly fed up stage.
Children with poor sleep can have difficulties with poor concentration, over-activity, behavioural problems, day-time sleepiness, bed-wetting, obesity, increased clumsiness, depression and worse academic performance. Equally bad, the lives of their parents and entire family are also grossly affected. As parents of infants, we have all been there, but somehow I’ve taken immense umbrage at this recent spell of poor sleep because Lil Bro is now 7 years old and well able to put himself to sleep.
When Big Sis was a wee mite, I was the rabid sleep-deprived mother heckling the sleep experts flown in from abroad to teach us doctors about sleep EEG’s: “Can you tell me why, WHY, how, HOW can a baby go from stage 4 deep sleep to AWAKE and CRYING just by a 10 degree tilt to lay them in the cot????!!!! Give me the EEG on how that happens…!!!! What’s the possible mechanism???!!!”….zzzzzzzz – bonk.
So, I must now be the envy of most mums, as for the last few years I have had the pleasure of working with Paul Gringras a.k.a. the Professor in charge of the national Sleep Medicine centre at The Evelina Children’s Hospital. I have been working with him on an international multi-centre drug trial for sleep medication in children with neurodisability (mainly autism), which he is leading. His centre is hi-tech with observational sleep bays where children can sleep-over and be observed on video to capture what is going on, often plugged into electronic equipment that monitors breathing, brain and movement activity and I was fortunate enough to be able to sit in on consultations with Consultant Paediatrician Dr Mike Farquhar. It all sounds very medical. What then has a shrink got to do with sleep?
Well, it turns out that the majority of sleep problems in children are “behavioural”. Yes, there are known medical causes of disturbed sleep, e.g. restless leg syndrome, obstructive sleep apnoea, sleep walking and so on, but for the majority of cases in children who are otherwise fit and well, it is what children and their parents are in the “habit” of doing that is keeping them all awake.
What constitutes a sleep problem?
The definition of a “good night’s sleep” is variable from person to person. As a student, a full 10 hours was a requisite for me often causing tardiness to morning lectures. At weekends waking before 10am was unheard of. As a junior doctor, 4 hours sleep constituted immense good fortune and developed in me the very useful skill of being able to sleep anywhere, anytime – zzzzzz-bonk. These skills came in handy with babies that hadn’t read Gina Ford. The early years of parenthood are a sleep-deprived blur, but once the youngest had reached the milestone of 3 years, a more acceptable routine of 10 hours of continuously sleeping children was established –albeit the 6am wakenings were still somewhat painful.
In reality sleep requirements differ between children of different ages, but also between different children. Average daily sleep duration ranges between 10-17 hours at 6 months to 8-11 hours at age 11 years. This variability colours people’s ideas of what constitutes a sleep problem, and I am often bemused by some parents who come in desperation seeking medication for 10 year old children that sleep from 7:30pm to 6am: thinking with a mix of incredulity “What planet are you on? That’s almost a full 11 hours!” and admiration “Please tell me how on earth you get a 10 year old to go to bed at 7:30pm!” With these children who are getting hours of sleep within the acceptable range, the sleep is only classified as problematic if it represents a dramatic change to sleep pattern and/ or if there is any evidence of daytime sleepiness. If the answer to both is “No”, then one should feel reassured. However, for a psychiatrist, we know that often a parental cry for help of “My children don’t sleep!” is actually a cry of “I’m struggling to cope with my children when they are awake!” This differentiation is critical as the treatment strategies for the two problems are entirely different.
Aside from these perceptual sleep problems, the three main problems involving sleep are: struggling to fall off to sleep, waking in the middle of the night and co-sleeping.
Struggling to fall off to sleep
Problems falling off to sleep are often cited as a struggle. Sleep latency (to give it its fancy name) averages 19 minutes in 0-2 year olds and 17 minutes for 3-12 year olds. Anything over 30 minutes is classed as problematic. However, these average latency numbers involves the child actually wanting to fall asleep and lying in their bed in the dark, and any of the children’s wonderfully inventive delaying tactics “One more story”, “I need the toilet”, “I need a drink”, “Mummy sing to me” are clearly “behavioural” and not really to do with a “medical” sleep problem.
As part of our natural sleep cycle, we all wake at some stage in the night. Most of us are able to close our eyes and will quickly fall back to sleep again such that we don’t realise that we were ever awake or close to waking. Where night waking is problematic is where children are unable to settle themselves back to sleep and start playing the drums and waking the entire neighbourhood in the middle of the night. Typically these children then decide to fall asleep at around 7am, just when they need to go to school, and then they either miss school as their parents are unable to drag them there, or they doze off in the classroom and can’t learn effectively. You can imagine the impact of this on their parents.
OK I am as seduced by the lovely mental images of canoodling up with my young children for a snooze as the next parent. Many parents are seduced into this as children love it and it often helps them to fall asleep more quickly, but each time you get the inkling that this might not be such a bad idea, I would like you to imagine you sleeping with your 15 year old son or daughter. If you don’t do something to nip it in the bud while your children are young, they might not “grow out of it” and it will be a battle to get them out of your bed and are not used to falling asleep alone. I would suggest that you turf them out of sleeping in your bed by age 7 years otherwise it may get horribly entrenched. Of course, the early morning “I’m awake” cuddles in bed are still fine!
So what can we do to help our children to sleep?
My paediatric colleague Dr Jess Turnbull who is starting up the community Evelina Sleep Centre off-shoot in my work-place has the following advice for encouraging good sleep habits:
- Physical exertion in the afternoon – encourage daily exercise in children in the day-time. This will wear them out and make them physically ready to sleep.
- Consistent daily bedtime – as with all things behavioural, if there is an established routine and children know what is going to happen and that they cannot get out of it, then compliance is more forthcoming.
- Last drink 1-1.5 hours before bed – this reduces the likelihood of children needing to get up to go to the toilet in the night, which may make it harder for them to fall back to sleep.
- Avoid sugar/ caffeine – fairly obvious really.
- Try and have a routine wind-down regime in the hour before bed time (calming activities such as reading, bath, calming music). The idea is to try and calm your child down so that they are in the right physical and mental frame of mind to sleep.
- NO SCREENS (TV, phones, tablets) for at least an hour before bed. TV programmes, phones and tablets are all designed to capture interest, attention and brain activity. Ideally, you want to be winding down your child’s brain activity in the hour before bed so turning off screens is desirable. I know that many parents are tempted by having a TV in a child’s bedroom to keep them quiet and contained in the day, but it then requires discipline for children to stop watching it late into the night. Only be happy to provide a child with a TV in their room if they possess such discipline or you are happy for them not to sleep.
- Having a transitional object (eg. a soft toy) to develop sleep confidence and a healthy sleep association. This can be particularly helpful for younger children.
- Working towards your child falling asleep by themselves in their own bed. If a child is used to sleeping with you, then you should gradually withdraw yourself. For instance, first get the child accustomed to sleeping with you sitting next to them, then in a chair in the room, then outside the room in sight, then outside the room out of sight. It takes time, patience and grit to do this as some children will really dig their heels in, but if you view this as ultimately for their own good (which it is) then it is more possible to undertake.
- Limit setting on ‘fussing’ after ‘lights out’. If you draw out the bedtime process with attending to the child’s fussing, then it defeats the purpose as it will get later and later and only teaches children that you will give them attention for their fussing which encourages them to continue to do it.
- Reducing attention given after ‘lights out’ to prevent reinforcing messages of attention (e.g. avoid eye contact and conversation): good old pursed lips and silent treatment. There is a rule in my house that after the official bedtime, “Nice mummy” goes to bed and “Horrible mummy” her doppelganger comes in her stead. Nice mummy cannot be accountable for the actions of horrible mummy and so it is much better for children to just go to sleep.
But I had done all this and still, Lil Bro could not get to sleep. This was even more annoying and I was starting to put it down to “naughtiness”.
The next day, I was lucky enough to be chairing a talk on Smith Magenis Syndrome (a genetic disorder which was frequently associated inverted sleep cycle – i.e. day time sleepiness and night time waking) and my colleague Paul Gringras was the invited expert. Half-way through his talk, he spoke about the solution to keeping these children awake in the day was by using blue light to cut off melatonin secretion in the day. Melatonin is the natural hormone our pineal glands secrete to tell us it is night time and aids sleep. It’s pharmaceutical form can be bought over the counter in the USA as a treatment for jet-lag and is a commonly prescribed sleeping tablet.
Hang on a minute, Lil Bro had recently been given a fantastic blue Star Wars light sabre light that he had been insisting on turning on as a night light when he went to bed….this type of blue light is used to KEEP CHILDREN AWAKE….aargh. We had been inadvertently switching off our son’s natural melatonin secretion via Luke Skywalker’s weaponry.
I double checked Jess Turnbull’s list of advice and saw that I had overlooked: “Use a red coloured light if night light is needed (does not interfere with natural melatonin production)”. That evening, I told Lil Bro that an important sleep expert had told me that his special blue light was keeping him awake. Lil Bro likes science and reason and he felt good that there was a reason for his insomnia and that it was not just “bad behaviour”. It’s silly mummy’s fault for letting you have that light on (he likes not being to blame). Releasing him of anxiety about insomnia and allowing the release of melatonin by switching off the offending blue light sabre led to zzzzzz-bonk!
The info from this post came from: Turnbull & Farquhar 2016. Fifteen-minute consultation on problems in the healthy child: sleep. Arch Dis Child Educ Pract Ed 101: 175-180.