Given that neural plasticity is at its greatest during infancy and toddlerhood, sleep is likely to have the most impact on the brain and on cognition during this critical period of early development. Yet, around 20–30% of young children experience problems with sleep. Researchers have observed that even though some infants with atypical sleep patterns early on eventually develop typical patterns of sleep by 6 or 7 years of age, reduced sleep duration in the first two years of life may have long-term consequences on later developmental outcomes, such as some degree of impaired physical, emotional and social functioning. A growing body of evidence suggests that children and adolescents displaying sleep difficulties or irregular bedtime is significantly associated with later problems of mental and physical health and lower cognitive and academic performance (Hill, Hogan, & Karmiloff-Smith, 2007; Kelly, Kelly, & Sacker, 2013; Magee, Gordon, & Caputi, 2014; Lam, Hiscock, & Wake, 2003; Wake, et al., 2006).
For infants and toddlers, touchscreen devices offer an attractive source of stimulation, and their portability allows for a wide range of use across multiple settings. However, the widespread use of devices in this age group has raised serious concerns for parents, educators and policy makers, as the potential impact of touchscreen use on toddler development, such as sleep, remains unknown. In addition, research into the long-term impact of poor sleep during early development remains limited. Yet, findings so far coincide, linking shorter sleep duration to negative developmental outcomes. The majority of studies (~90%) show a consistent pattern linking increased screen time with shorter total sleep time and delayed bedtime. As a result, recent guidelines have recommended screens to be kept out of a child’s bedroom specifically because of the potential impact they may have on sleep (OfCom, 2014).
Given the evidence that:
A recent meta-analytic review identified 20 studies in children and adolescents aged between 6 and 19, and found strong and consistent evidence for detrimental effects of portable touchscreen devices on sleep quality and quantity (Carter, Rees, Hale, Bhattacharjee, & Paradkar, 2016). All studies used parent questionnaires, and have reported a significant effect of screen time on sleep: increased amount of TV viewing was associated with parent-reported sleep problems, shorter night-time sleep duration, reduced quality of sleep, and irregular naptime and bedtime schedules, adjusting for known confounds including socioeconomic status (SES).
Using a large scale survey, researchers have started to investigate the relationship between touchscreen use and sleep in infants and toddlers between 6 and 36 months of age. Parents were asked to report on the average duration of their child’s daytime and night-time sleep, the time taken for their child to fall asleep, as well as the frequency of night awakenings, to obtain a comprehensive account of infant/toddler sleep patterns.
The UK-based survey on 715 families, reported that 75% of toddlers between 6 months and 3 years of age use a touchscreen on a daily basis. The researchers found that the prevalence of daily use increases substantially with age, from 51% in 6- to 11-month-old infants to 92.05% by 25–36 months. Among users, daily usage increased with age from 8.53 minutes a day (6–11 months) to 45 minutes a day (26–36 months). The average touchscreen usage in this sample is 24.44 minutes.
There was a significant association between touchscreen use and duration of sleep at night, and sleep onset (the type it takes to falls asleep), with increased touchscreen use associated with decreased night-time sleep, increased daytime sleep and a longer sleep onset. There was no significant association between touchscreen usage and frequency of night awakenings. Results also showed that increased touchscreen use was associated with decreased overall amount of sleep. The researchers concluded that every additional hour of touchscreen use is associated with an overall reduction in sleep of 15.6 minutes.
The blue wavelengths emitted by electronic devices—which are beneficial during daylight hours because they boost attention, reaction times, and mood—seem to be the most disruptive at night. While light of any kind can suppress the secretion of melatonin, blue light at night does so more powerfully. Researchers conducted an experiment comparing the effects of 6.5 hours of exposure to blue light to exposure to green light of comparable brightness. The blue light suppressed melatonin for about twice as long as the green light and shifted circadian rhythms by twice as much (3 hours vs. 1.5 hours). (Harvard, 2015).
It is worth noting that touchscreen use may also have positive effect on some aspects of development. In a recent study of the same sample of infants and toddlers, increased active touchscreen use was associated with earlier achievement in fine motor milestones (Bedford, Saez de Urabain, Cheung, Karmiloff-Smith & Smith, 2016).
Together, these findings emphasize the need for a more in-depth understanding of how to maximize benefits and minimize negative consequences of this modern technology.
Bedford, R., Saez de Urabain, I. R., Cheung, C. H., Karmiloff-Smith, A. & Smith, T. J. (2016).
Toddlers’ Fine Motor Milestone Achievement Is Associated with Early Touchscreen Scrolling. Front Psychol 7, 1108, https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2016.01108
Carter, B., Rees, P., Hale, L., Bhattacharjee, D. & Paradkar, M. S. (2016). Association Between Portable Screen-Based Media Device Access or Use and Sleep Outcomes: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis. JAMA Pediatr, https://doi.org/10.1001/jamapediatrics.2016.2341
Cheung, C., Bedford, R., Saez De Urabain, I., Karmiloff-Smith, A. and Smith, T. (2017). Daily touchscreen use in infants and toddlers is associated with reduced sleep and delayed sleep onset. Scientific Reports, 7, p.46104. https://doi.org/10.1038/srep46104
Harvard (2015). Blue light has a dark side - Harvard Health. [online] Harvard Health. Available at: https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/blue-light-has-a-dark-side [Accessed 3 Oct. 2017].
Hill, C. M., Hogan, A. M. & Karmiloff-Smith, A. (2007). To sleep, perchance to enrich learning? Arch Dis Child 92, 637–643, https://doi.org/10.1136/adc.2006.096156
Kelly, Y., Kelly, J. & Sacker, A. (2013). Time for bed: associations with cognitive performance in 7-year-old children: a longitudinal population-based study. J Epidemiol Community Health 67, 926–931, https://doi.org/10.1136/jech-2012-202024
Magee, C. A., Gordon, R. & Caputi, P. (2014). Distinct developmental trends in sleep duration during early childhood. Pediatrics 133, e1561–1567, https://doi.org/10.1542/peds.2013-3806
Lam, P., Hiscock, H. & Wake, M. (2003). Outcomes of infant sleep problems: a longitudinal study of sleep, behavior, and maternal well-being. Pediatrics 111, e203–207
OfCom. Children and Parents: Media Use and Attitudes Report. (2014). Available at https://www.ofcom.org.uk/__data/assets/pdf_file/0027/76266/childrens_2014_report.pdf
Wake, M. et al. (2006). Prevalence, stability, and outcomes of cry-fuss and sleep problems in the first 2 years of life: prospective community-based study. Pediatrics 117, 836–842, https://doi.org/10.1542/peds.2005-0775
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