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Healthy You

Keeping Up with Kids in the Digital Age

Thursday, December 08, 2016 10:07 AM

The electronic age is not inherently good or bad. It’s about how devices are used. When used well they provide information, social connectivity, ease of communication and entertainment. Used poorly or excessively, digital devices are associated with decreased health and well-being outcomes. Children are receiving smartphones at increasingly younger ages. Per Influence Central, 50% of children now have social media accounts by age 12. The Pew Research Center notes 92% of teens are online “almost daily” and 24% are online “almost constantly” for social media purposes. Understandably, parents are looking for a healthy balance in allowing children self-direction while providing safety and healthy digital habits.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has updated their social media policy recommendations with a convenient online tool, the Family Media Plan. This includes a 24-hour Media Time Calculator to help families balance recommended screen time for children aged 18 months to 18 years with family time, school, and extracurricular and leisure activities. Categories can be adjusted or added for a child’s individual schedule and needs.

Why is Digital Sleep Hygiene Important?

Youth need consistent and uninterrupted sleep for healthy growth and optimal functioning. Access to digital devices at bedtime has been found to be associated with longer time to settle to sleep, reduced sleep quantity and quality, and excessive daytime sleepiness compared to children who did not have bedtime access to devices (JAMA Pediatrics, 2016).

What are some behavioral contributions to consider?

  • Reduced sleep. Youth are likely to stay up later than established bedtimes when on devices or gaming consoles or talking to or texting friends resulting in reduced sleep, especially if unsupervised.
  • Interrupted sleep. Youth may forget to turn off their devices with alarms or texts sounding during the night waking them up. They may not refrain from responding to messages or calls further delaying their return to sleep.
  • Decreased self-monitoring. Younger children may view scary material and be overstimulated before bedtime, causing difficulty in settling to sleep or nightmares. It is more difficult to supervise quality of viewed material on small hand held devices children control in smaller spaces than large screens in common areas with a communal control (remote).

What to do? Establish and maintain healthy digital sleep habits:

Media-Free Sleep. The AAP recommends youth sleep with electronic devices outside their bedrooms. Digital media can be stored and charged in a designated or supervised area.

Bedtime Blue-Out. The AAP recommends turning off digital devices at least 1-hour before bedtime. Emitted blue light from devices affects levels of melatonin, the hormone that plays a role in regulating the sleep-wake cycle. In turn, changes in sleep patterns shift the natural circadian rhythm and can negatively impact other areas of functioning. While randomized-controlled studies need to be conducted, the following preliminary suggestions for use of devices near bedtime have been offered by those studying the effects of blue light:

  • dim screen brightness to reduce emanating blue light
  • use blue light filtering apps
  • reverse print text (dark background-light text)
  • wear orange-tinted goggles to block blue light
  • ensure plenty of exposure to natural light during the day

Concerning digital topics

Cyberbullying can be especially harmful due to its ambiguous nature. Cyberbullies often hide behind aliases, though most victims know their intimidators. Cyberbullying can spread rapidly and pervasively across multiple communication and social platforms. As a result, victims feel unsafe and distressed even in the physical privacy of their home. It is important cyberbullying is addressed early and appropriately.

Sexting. Self-report studies indicate on average 30% of teens report engaging in sexting of some kind. Consensual or not, minors generally do not understand the legal and social consequences. Increasingly, it is not uncommon for young girls to receive sexting pressure. Sexting and excessive texting in middle school is associated with self-reported sexual activity at that time, and is noteworthy because early sexual activity is related to increased rates of sexually transmitted infections and pregnancies (Pediatrics, 2014). The Illinois State Bar Association provides legal information on underage sexting, and the Cyberbullying Research Center provides a general sexting overview.