By Guest Blogger Sarah MacReynolds, LCSW
A new school year brings with it the opportunity to adopt new routines. It is a great time to evaluate what is working and what could use an intentional tune-up. As parents evaluate their “back to school” routines, I hear the most complaints around cell phone usage and bedtime. One of the big questions that arises is, “should kids be allowed to use their phones in bed?” These issues exist in families with kids of all ages. In many cases, the issues are related.
There are both physiological and emotional issues to consider regarding cell phones (or any other screens) prior to bedtime. Let’s start with the physiological ones. Screens emit blue light which stimulates the brain. In a nutshell, the brain processes this light like it does sunlight and then the body thinks it is time to be awake. This stimulation then decreases the amount of melatonin the body naturally produces. Melatonin is key to a good night’s sleep, as it is the hormone that tells the body to begin to prepare for sleep. So imagine for a moment, you have a daughter who is in bed on her phone or playing a video game. You let her know it is time for bed. She obediently turns off her device, but is unable to fall asleep. Since she can’t sleep, she then decides to watch one more video on You Tube, check Instagram again, or play one more game. This only compounds the problem. Not only is she stimulating instead of relaxing her brain, but she may then get into trouble for not complying with the rules. Sounds like the teenage version of If You Give a Mouse a Cookie. Remember those books? You may have read them to your child as part of a healthy bedtime routine. I am also reminded of my mom telling me as a young teenager when I begged for a later curfew that, “nothing good happens after midnight”. Perhaps the same could be applied to cell phones and bedtime!
This brings up another concern: what are the kids actually doing on their phones in the middle of the night? There is less risk of being “caught” by a parent which can lead to riskier decisions. Sure, kids have been sneaking out of the house and watching inappropriate videos for years. However, cell phones and the internet make it more accessible. Kids are dealing with serious issues – cyber bullying, addiction, gambling, pornography. We know that the more they see it the more desensitized they become. This can lead to serious issues. We also know that kids, and adults too for that matter, do not make their best decisions when tired or under pressure. Now our kids can be subjected to peer pressure 24 hours a day. So having a cell phone with them, alone at night, could be setting them up to make poor choices with lasting consequences. Choices that they can’t “unsee” or take back.
Now for the emotional piece of the problem. Have you ever decided to check your email or text message right before bed and found yourself feeling anxious or angry about the content? Maybe it’s a work email, or maybe a text from a friend who is upset – either way you probably had an emotional response that increased your adrenaline. An adrenaline rush is not helpful when trying to fall asleep! This happens all the time to kids when they are doing that “last check” on social media and happen to read a post that invokes one of those emotional responses. Then their sleep is most likely going to be disrupted that night. If the pattern continues, and it doesn’t take long for it to become a pattern, they can develop significant sleep problems. We all know how difficult it can be to deal with a sleep deprived child, and it can impact their school work and ability to make good decisions.
As our kids get older and more independent, we sometimes forget that they still need bedtime routines. Part of that routine can include powering down devices in order to power down their bodies. Some families make it a policy that all devices are turned into a central location in the home by 8:00 every night; even the parents’ devices. WARNING: kids may not like this idea. For that matter, your spouse/partner may not like it either. Whether or not you decide to take your own phones back out after the kids are asleep is up to you, but turning them off does model healthy habits. Routine is important to a good night’s sleep at any age. Remember your child’s frontal lobe, the part of the brain that helps with self-control, is not fully developed until somewhere around the age of 25. Establishing routines and behavioral strategies can help them develop healthy habits and improve self-regulation. One way to help with this is to encourage them to replace screen time before bed with an activity that relaxes them rather than stimulates them. Some ideas include taking a bath/shower, reading a “for fun” book, or listening to calm music. Think about what HEALTHY activities relax you and share those with your child if age appropriate.
In a society where many of us have unlimited access to multiple screens and devices, it is easy to forget a simple truth. Access to screens is a privilege. As a parent, you are in control of those privileges. Taking devices out of the bedroom at night allows an opportunity to teach your child valuable coping skills to establish healthy sleep habits and better self-regulation. Those are gifts that last a lifetime.
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