Kids, Teens, Screens, and the Third Wheel – Sleep!

Digital devices are everywhere, and with the convenience of YouTube and NetFlix and/or hunger for SnapChat or Instagram likes, it’s hard for kids, teens, and adults to shut down the screens and turn in for restful sleep. Multiple studies point to the obvious but often ignored truth: screen time use decreases sleep time and sleep quality, which then leads to other medical and mental health problems.

How prevalent are screens in our children’s lives?

About 50% of kids and teens have a TV in their bedrooms, more than 75% have a digital device in their bedroom, and more than 1/4 of school-aged kids and 1/2 of teens keep their devices on after bedtime. Half of parents in the studies believed that watching TV helped their young babies and kids settle down in the evening, and entrepreneurs are quick to capitalize on this by offering more and more apps to “help” kids wind down before bedtime.

How screens create a problem for our children’s sleep and health

There are a few ways that digital devices interfere with sleep. With only 24 hours a day, the time spent on screens displaces the time spent on sleeping (and on interacting with family), and the effect is even more as screen use gets closer to bed time. The specific wavelength of the blue light from the screens strongly reduces the the body’s natural hormone melatonin, which usually spikes before bedtime to help us fall asleep. Kids and teens are more sensitive to the effect of light stimulation than adults. So far, studies show that dimming the light has not been shown to be beneficial either. The digital devices also increase alertness, especially with interactive programs such as phone or video games, which then leads to the body taking longer to fall asleep.

When screens cause teens to sleep less, they also have an increased risk of emotional problems, peer conflict, and suicidal ideation. Sleep problems from preschool age can even create a lasting effect on the teen years and lead to more behavioral and emotional problems. In both kids and adults, less sleep also leads to increase weight gain and obesity. Kids and teens who are on their screens more, also have increased daytime sleepiness which can interfere with learning and focus.

How much sleep do kids need?

Here are the summary of sleep recommendations from the National Sleep Foundation and then American Academy of Sleep Medicine. Remember, these are just estimates, so please don’t freak out if your healthy, gaining-weight, happy, occasionally fussy 2-day old baby is sleeping 20 hours a day or if your fear-of-missing-out (FOMO) toddler refuses to nap and is only getting 10 hours of sleep. Our bodies only read DNA and the environment, not sleep textbooks. Address any specific concerns with your child’s doctor please!

newborns 0-3 months: 14-17 hours
infants 4-11 months: 12-16 hours
toddlers 1-2 years: 11-14 hours
preschoolers 3-5 years: 10-13 hours
school-aged kids 6-13 years: 9-12 hours
teens 14-17: 8-10 hours

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The solution is to be a rebel

With devices all around us, we have to be intentional about taking control of the devices before they control our lives. It’s a struggle and will continue to be a struggle, and winning this battle requires us to go against the attraction of advertising, the convenience of the electronic babysitter or entertainer, and the temper tantrum demands of our young kids and teens.

Be intentional to keep our own and our kids’ screen times in check.

Make boundaries and enforce them. Discuss the and modify them accordingly. For my family, I have media-free times such as in the car, during meal times and in restaurants, and also during down time such as waiting in line at the grocery or department stores. This creates more opportunities for me to chat with my kids and find out about their lives, play I spy games and sing songs with them. I also avoid screen time for my kids in the mornings, because if I let them watch a show in the morning, they will whine all day long about watching more, and I don’t like whining. My kids also don’t have any devices of their own yet (3 years old and 6 years old), and of course they have no TV in their room. I try stop screen time 30-60 minutes before bed time (check out the Brush, Book, Bed routine). When my kids are older and have their own phones, I plan to use rule about the whole family putting their devices in a basket before bedtime so they are not in the bedrooms, removing the temptation to check notifications overnight. Here’s my prior post about how I do screen time. Remember, every family and every kid is different, so don’t compare. While I don’t give my kids screen time in the morning, I completely endorse this use of morning screen time for another family – mom is the only one caring for 3 young kids in the morning, so she motivates them to get ready for school by rewarding them with screen time once teeth are brushed, clothes are put on, and breakfast is eaten.  Check out the American Academy’s Media Plan maker to create some boundaries for your family, customized to the kids’ activities and age.

Be patient, because good habits take time to foster.

Parents don’t just give their teens keys and a car and expect them to know how to drive safely and hit the road independently. They teach them rules and safety. They monitor their skills closely. And then slowly, they loosen up the reins and hope their kids remember what was taught and be responsible. The same principle applies to using screen time responsibly – take time and intentional effort. Another analogy (the pediatrician in me can’t help myself because I am trying so hard not to go off on a tangent on this during the @mainlinehealth Instagram Live and NBC10 interview I’m doing on this topic so I have to mention it here), is healthy eating. We can’t surround kids with cookies and juice every day and expect them to choose carrots and water. Teaching kids to eat healthy means creating an environment with lots of exposure to fruits, veggies, water, milk, healthy (low salt, low sugar) snacks, difference types of meats {aka an environment with lots of people interaction}, and an environment quite lacking in sugary drinks, sweet and sticky foods (like fruit snacks) {aka an environment void of much screen time}. Ultimately, we can hope that our kids will grow up to be teens and adults who continue to choose healthier options {continue to live by safe and sleep-conducive screen time use}.

Be open to getting help.

If a parent is having a lot of trouble getting their teens to decrease their screen time, especially of the device usage is causing problems with school and replacing or interfering with interpersonal relationships, or if their teens are unable to fall asleep despite implementing screen time boundaries and proper bedtimes, it may be time to seek help from a therapist or the pediatrician. Internet addiction is a real and common problem, as are general mental health disorders that cause an inability to sleep well. Don’t struggle alone, seek guidance from a medical professional.

From third wheel to super star

I named this post “kids, teens, screens, and the third wheel – sleep” because sleep often does become the third wheel in the eye of parents and kids. Staying connected, getting likes, or being entertained is sometimes prioritized over sleep in the eyes of a teen. Or a fear of fighting over screen time boundaries has sometimes paralyzed parents from making sleep over screens a priority in the home. So, sleep is sacrificed. But now that we are armed with the evidence-based knowledge, let’s make sleep a superstar in our lives, something worth fighting and struggling for. Because it’s about our health and our kids’ mental and physical health, and that’s worth a struggle to make sleep a priority!

Most of this article was based on a report from L Hale, et al, published April 2018 in Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Clinics of North America.



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This is not medical advice. Consult your child’s doctor for proper guidance and recommendations that fit your child’s specific needs.