Let’s get it right! Time in front of a screen DOES affect the amount and quality of our kid’s sleep. Here is a perfect example of why it’s helpful to go beyond the headlines:

A researcher at Oxford University in the UK wanted to get a sense of how big the effect of screen time was on the quality and the amount of sleep kids were getting. The general opinion has been that it was important but there was no baseline data to gauge the effect. He looked at a large study — over 50,000 children from 6 months of age to 17 throughout the USA — whose families were surveyed (on line mainly, but some mail-in) in 2016. The survey had asked the parents, among other questions, how much time the children spent in front of a screen and how much they slept. He found that for every hour in front of a screen, the parents reported that their children slept some 3 to 8 minutes less and the quality of their sleep wasn’t as good. Not a huge effect and that’s what the article said.

The headlines however only emphasized that screen time didn‘t affect sleep. The truth is the paper, Digital Screen Time and Pediatric Sleep: Evidence from a Preregistered Cohort Study, in the Journal of Pediatrics didn’t say that screen time had no effect, rather that the effect wasn’t the most important. There are other factors, such as having a set sleep time and a regular pre-sleep routine that were more important, but there was an effect and even more important, there were huge “buts” to this research, which the author himself acknowledged. This is why you really have to go beyond the headlines if you want to do the right thing for your kids.

First, this information was reported by the parents and not measured directly. We have no idea how accurate their answers were. We hope that the large numbers surveyed will cancel out any problems with the data but we can’t be sure.

Second, and just as important, when was that screen time? No one asked. We all think (again, no scientific proof) that when the kids are occupied with their screens is important. Children in front of a computer when they get home from school vs hiding under the covers with their favourite game or online with their friends at night could be an important consideration, and that wasn’t looked at.

So, these headlines alone aren’t enough if you want to make the right decision about allowing your kids to spend time on their cell phones or playing games on their computers. In fact, I think it makes sense to take a page from the parenting manual of titans in the computer industry. Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and Tim Cook have all been reported to have restricted access to screen time for the kids they care about. Maybe we should do the same. And if you go beyond the headlines, this study agrees.

Dr. Mitch Shulman is an Assistant Professor, Dept. of Surgery, McGill Medical School and an Attending Physician, Emergency Department, McGill University Health Centre. He’s also the CJAD AM 800 Medical Consultant.

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