Moms and Dads, here’s yet another good reason to turn off the television when your child is in the room: a new study suggests that both violence on television and evening TV-watching can disrupt children’s sleep.
Scientists at the Seattle Children’s research Institute have linked evening exposure to media and viewing violent programming at any time of day, as likely to affect the quality of young children’s sleep, making it harder for them to fall asleep and more likely to have nightmares. Media, in this case, includes television, as well as video games and online content.
Working with more than 600 children ages 3-5 years old, researchers asked parents to monitor and record their children’s media viewing for seven consecutive days. Parents also recorded their children’s sleep habits for the same time period, paying particular attention to any possible sleep problems, including:
- Difficulty falling asleep
- Nightmares and waking during the night
- Trouble waking up in the morning
- Tiredness during the day
Based on the parents’ reports, scientists discovered a significant increase in these sleep problems for children who were exposed to violent media content. Children who watched television in the evenings—after 7 p.m.—were also significantly more likely to suffer from one or several of these sleep issues.
There’s a lot of evidence that suggests media exposure can be detrimental to children and the quality of their sleep. This study provides some important details about how when, what, where, and who is watching matters.
- Children in the study watched an average of 72.9 minutes of media screen time per day
- On average, 14 minutes of this time took place after 7 p.m.
- For every additional hour of violent or evening viewing, risks to sleep increased significantly
- Children who had televisions in their bedrooms watched an additional 40 minutes per day above the average—and had more difficulties with sleep
- It did not matter whether a parent or adult was watching with their child.
As for the consequences for kids who have chronic sleep difficulties, the evidence is overwhelming. Children who develop sleep problems are at risk for a wide range of other health risks, including:
- Weight problems, including obesity
- Cardiovascular issues
- Learning difficulties and poor academic performance
- Behavior problems
- Mental health issues
These problems pose serious risks for children that can often last into adulthood. This is why it’s so important to start early and remain dedicated to helping your child develop healthy sleep habits, and to avoid the triggers that we know make sleep more difficult for young kids.
Here’s something to keep in mind about violent programming: it’s not just adult shows that can pose difficulties for young children. In fact, older children’s programming can be more of a problem for younger children, because there is so much of it, and because it is so easily accessible. In this study, researchers found no difference in the effects of violent programming that was animated verses live-action depictions of violence. This makes sense, since young children are not yet able to distinguish between “real” and “pretend.” Letting your younger child sit in on shows that your older kids are watching may expose them to frightening content that is beyond their years. The slapstick violence of many cartoons and kid-friendly comedies your 10-year-old finds hysterical—and harmless—is likely to scare your 5-year-old.
I’m not suggesting that all television or media must be off limits to young children. It’s worth noting that researchers found no link between non-violent daytime television watching and sleep problems. Here are some suggestions for what I think is a realistic, common-sense approach:
Keep it brief: Limit overall viewing time, no matter what time of day—this includes not only television, but the Internet and video games as well. With so many options these days, it’s important to think about total media exposure, not just TV time.
Power down at night: At least one hour before bedtime, turn off all the electronic gadgets, to help your child relax and prepare for bed.
Make it count: When your child is watching television, help him choose high-quality, age-appropriate programming that’s violence-free.
Bedrooms are for sleep: Keep your child’s bedroom media-free (well, books are okay!). This means no television, but also no computers or video game players.
Michael J. Breus, PhD
The Sleep Doctor™
Everything you do, you do better with a good night’s sleep™