The COVID-19 pandemic has kept many students out of school for extended periods. With social distancing and quarantines, the overall amount of screen time has increased for many children and adolescents.
Home schooling has no doubt made parents more aware of the benefits of digital technologies. However, research suggests that digital media can have a negative impact on physical, mental, and social well-being. Screen time has been linked to disrupted sleep, a decrease in wellbeing, poor posture, and more sedentary behaviour for many children and teenagers. There is also a risk of exposure to cyberbullying and inappropriate content.
“On the positive side, digital media can help support learning and provide more opportunities for social interaction.”
On the positive side, digital media can help support learning and provide more opportunities for social interaction. A number of studies have found that screen time has no effect on wellbeing, while others point out that some screen time is better for mental health than none at all.
Could timing be key?
In a 2017 study of more than 1,700 young adults, social media use during the last half-hour before bed was the strongest indicator of a poor night’s sleep. Other research has suggested that screen time before bed reduces the duration and quality of teenagers’ sleep.
A recent study by researchers in Brazil finds that media use before bed may also have knock-on effects on a student’s school day. The study shows that teenagers who indulge in excessive screen use before bed have slower reaction times and shorter attention spans the following day, which suggests that the regular use of screens at night may affect teenagers’ ability to learn. Eighty-nine boys and girls with an average age of 15 were asked about their screen use and sleep, and 51% of them reported using a smartphone before bed on weekdays. The teenagers also completed a task designed to test their attention in the morning.
“Slower reaction times and less stable attention spans in the morning were observed in those who reported higher screen use before bed.”
Although screen time before bed did not appear to have a significant effect on self-reported sleep patterns, it did seem to have a negative impact on most aspects of morning attention. Slower reaction times and less stable attention spans in the morning were observed in those who reported higher screen use before bed. The researchers believe that this may be due to sleep deprivation or poor sleep quality.
The impacts of screen-based media use on the brain are complex and tricky to disentangle. A recent paper highlights the complex interaction among many different factors, including sleep, type of media use, levels of social interaction, and physical activity.
Putting evidence into practice
Where does this leave parents looking for help with decisions on their children’s screen time? While there is still a lot of uncertainty around the effects of screen time, abundant evidence indicates that late-night use of digital media could be having an impact on sleep, as well as potential knock-on effects, as seen in the Brazilian study.
Guidance recently issued by the UK’s Chief Medical Officer recommends that people “leave phones outside the bedroom when it is bedtime.” Similarly, the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health recommends avoiding screens for an hour before bedtime.
Whatever rules parents may establish during the day, in my opinion, it seems clear that children should be encouraged to avoid screen use before bed.