Studies have found that the more time toddlers spend using touchscreen devices, the more likely they are to develop sleep problems. By Kim Bell
We are raising a generation of children floating in a digital marinade, says creative parenting expert and author Nikki bush, who co-authored Tech-Savvy Parenting with Arthur Goldstruck.
“By virtue of the fact that your child was most likely born in the 21st century, or at the tail end of the 20th century, they have been surrounded by digital their entire lives. In other words, they have been digitally nurtured. As a result, they are wired for technology and there are no barriers to their entry into any new digital playground.”
However, Nikki and Arthur add: “Children are born human and, therefore, their first language is not digital, it is love. They are born into a human world surrounded by touch, multisensory stimulation, and emotion. Our first and most important role in their lives is to marinade them in love.”
Between the ages of 0 and 24 months, your child is learning how to coordinate various parts of her body and how to defy gravity, which is a big thing, say the experts. “From birth to age two, the body takes the most phenomenal journey, from the warmth and comfort of the womb to opening up from the foetal position, activating and then shutting down various important reflexes that are part of human development, to learning how to roll over, kneel, crawl, sit, stand and walk. What drives most of this development is a curiosity to explore the world.” Emotionally, Bush says, babies and toddlers are bonding with their parents and caregivers, learning how to trust them. “From 18 months, they embark on a journey to independence by discovering that they are actually separate from their mothers. By the age of two, they start to become more social and interact with other children. From birth, children need to hear their parents’ voices and we need to talk them clever.”
What this means, in a nutshell, is that this is a huge growth and development time – one that can be either helped or hindered by tech usage.
Babies and toddlers, say Nikki and Arthur, are multisensory learners who need more than just a screen. One of the questions they are often asked is, “My child can’t fall asleep without my smartphone or tablet in their hand, is that OK?” One of the biggest problems with this, says Nikki, is that that this hinders your baby and toddler developing the life skill of being able to put themselves to sleep, which is known as self-regulation.
Why screen time before bed is not a good idea
Sleep and screen time has been the topic of much research in recent years, and studies have found that the more time toddlers spend using, in particular, touchscreen devices, the more likely they are to develop sleep problems. According to researchers at the University of London and King’s College London, three quarters of children aged six months to three years are exposed to an iPad or smartphone every day. Lead researcher and psychology lecturer, Tim Smith, explains that the light emitted by electronic screens has been linked to lower levels of melatonin (the sleep-regulating hormone) in adults, and this is believed to have the same effect on children. Smith’s study found that for each extra hour a baby or toddler spent on a touch-activated screen, they lost nearly 16 minutes of sleep.
Australian sleep expert, Dr Sarah Loughran, concurs. She says too much screen time can hamper your toddler under two in the following ways:
- The use of phones and tablets can lead to delays in bedtime, which results in less time for sleep.
- The content your child is watching may be engaging and stimulating the brain, rather than calming and getting ready for sleep. This may trigger emotional and hormonal responses, such as the increase of adrenalin, which reduces your child’s ability to fall and stay asleep.
- The light emissions from electronic devices disrupts your child’s naturally occurring circadian rhythm by increasing alertness and suppressing the release of melatonin, which is required for regulating a healthy sleep-wake cycle.
What you can do:
Nikki explains that children at this age should be more off-screen than on, as the best way to learn about the world is though concrete, physical, multisensory interaction to help them make sense of the world. Under the age of two, it is recommended that your child has under an hour a day.
- Your child learns by your actions, so restrict your own screen time when you are together.
- Set a “bed time” for all media devices. Ideally, this should happen a good one to two hours prior to your child’s own bedtime (try this yourself as well, so you all have healthy sleep habits).
- If screen time is a problem in your household, ban media devices in the bedroom.
- Limit food and drinks during screen time (and in particular at night). Electronic devices tend to be linked to mindless eating, which can also stimulate the body and lead to an imbalance of hormones.
- Create a regular routine for sleeping, playing and eating.
- Babies need loads of human contact, including cuddling and rocking and hearing your voice. If your baby does have screen time, perhaps cuddle her on your lap at the time, and talk to her.
- Read to your toddler on your lap. “This provides real, warm, fuzzy connection moments,” say Nikki and Arthur. “Encourage reading and a love of books by providing them with a variety of board books, including touch-and-feel options with different textures, sound buttons and clear pictures.”
Did you know? Not all screen time is bad. In fact, research has found that touchscreen devices can help improve motor skills. It is the when, the where, the why and the length of time spent on electronic devices that leads to problems.
The dangers of tech addiction
Dr Nicholas Kardaras, one of the top addiction experts in the US and author of Glow Kids: How Screen Addiction Is Hijacking Our Kids, reveals that reliance on electronic devices can neurologically damage the developing brain of a child the same way that drug addiction can. He believes we should let children’s brains develop fully before being exposed to “digital drugs”. He was quoted as saying: “I’ve worked clinically with over 1 000 teens over the past decade plus and one of the most amazing things that I observed was that kids raised from an early age on a high-tech/high-screen diet suffered from what seemed to be a digital malaise. They were, almost universally, what I like to call “uninterested and uninteresting”. He added that they lacked a natural curiosity and a sense of wonder and imagination that non-screen kids seemed to have. “Kids’ brains develop during key developmental windows when they engage their active imagination in such things as creative play. These windows are when the body builds the most neuronal connections. Kids who are just passively stimulated by a glowing screen don’t have to do the neural heavy lifting to create those images. The images are provided for them, thus stunting their own creative abilities.”
Kim Bell is a wife, mother of two teenagers and a lover of research and the way words flow and meld together. She has been in the media industry for over 20 years, and yet still learns more about life from her children everyday. You can learn more about Kim Bell here.