When a 14-year-old Grand hopped a plane and came to visit her Gramps and PenPen during spring break, the trip was all about indulging her--giving her the chance to decide what we would do, where we would go and the kind of food we would eat. Freedom Hall. A visit without the parents in tow is a liberating experience for us as well as for her. But there was one rule that her parents insisted we enforce: No cellphones, laptops or other screens in her room at night.
When our 16-year-old Grandson flew down here last week for a quick 36-hour visit (Sunday soccer games must be accommodated), a similar admonition followed him. Cellphones had to be parked in the kitchen (or wherever we plugged our charging station) at night and during dinner.
I hate being a policeman. I want my visits with my teen Grands to feel like we are a staging for the almost-adults they are almost becoming. I want them to feel I trust them to be responsible and to follow the sensible rules their parents lay down--that I don't need to check up on them.
But the cellphone rules are there for good reason. The science (and we believe in science!) finds that screen time at bedtime is disruptive to sleep patterns. A European study of nearly 10,000 16- to 19-year-olds found that the longer the time in any given day that a teenager spends using electronic devices such as tablets and smartphones, the worse their sleep will be.
Closer to home, an article in Science Life (a publication of University of Chicago Medicine and Biological Sciences) looked at sleep patterns for children and adolescents. After delineating a variety of reasons why adolescents don't bed down as easily as their younger siblings (circadian rhythms and that sort of stuff), the article ran these family-friendly Q and A paragraphs:
Is it okay if the phone is in the room but it’s just plugged in and charging? Or is there something about the presence of it, knowing it’s there and you might get a message?
That should be fine, but if your kid knows it’s there and might be tempted to check it in case a friend texts, you might as well charge it in the living room. Even if it’s on vibrate, their brains are cued to hear that and it could wake them up. They’re going to want to get up and check it, so it’s removing the temptation by taking it out of the room.
Is there a rule of thumb for how long before bedtime you should turn off the electronics?
If you could do at least 30 minutes that’s great. An hour or more is wonderful, but that’s not terribly realistic for a lot of people, including myself. I know the rules and I break them myself sometimes. But give your brain a chance to unwind, to reduce the effects of the bright light and recover from that. Give yourself at least 30 minutes to not be staring at a bright light or doing anything particularly stimulating like playing violent video games. Watching TV from a distance isn’t necessarily as bad because it’s not as bright, unless what you’re doing is very stimulating, so watching a horror movie in bed isn’t always a great idea.
Which is more of a problem: the light from screens or the stimulation from using electronics?
Both. Light is particularly bad because it suppresses melatonin. It’s also an alerting signal to the brain of it being daytime. It can confuse the brain about what time of day it is. The brain is thinking it should be alert and awake because it’s bright and something is going on. So it’s doing both at the same time.
Turns out we didn't have to police the situation too closely. Both our Grands (one our daughter's child; the other our son's) understood the rules. They voluntarily brought their phones to the charging station when they went to bed. There was a little more fudging on the laptop front--I won't say by whom. We did have to close it down when we did a bed check before we went to bed. But there were no whines or complaints. We could rest easy: Our Grands have learned and are practicing proper digital device behavior. Are they sleeping the sleep of the good? We assume so.