COMPUTERS, gaming and technology are such a big part of modern life that it seems they’re now affecting children’s sleep.
A new survey has found that up to two-thirds of UK children aren’t getting enough sleep, and part of the problem is that rather than enjoying a bedtime story, more than half of children aged over six admit they stay up late playing computer games, browsing the internet, texting their friends and watching television.
The survey, by Travelodge, found that 67% of children miss out on a bedtime story, and nearly half don’t follow a regular bedtime routine or go to bed at the same time each night.
In fact, the average respondent in the study of more than 2,000 children aged between six and 15 went to bed at 11.20pm.
As a result of sleep deprivation, 79% of children said they find it difficult to concentrate at school, and eight out of 10 reported extreme daytime tiredness, to the extent that more than a quarter admitted to falling asleep in class at least once a week.
Children’s sleep specialist Andrea Grace says part of children’s sleep problems may stem from them having computers, TVs and electronic games in their bedrooms, as it’s hard for parents to police what’s going on.
“It’s very easy if they’re quiet upstairs to think that they’re asleep, when actually they’re on the computer or watching TV in their room,” she says.
“It’s so easy to stay up and do something on the internet or play a game – doing these things give children a false energy, making them feel energised and awake even when they’re tired.”
She says that while going on the computer just before bed may or may not affect children’s sleep quality, “it’s more that it postpones sleep and keeps children hooked in”.
She says sleep deprivation makes people more susceptible to illness and infections, the immune system is affected and people are more prone to accidents, depression and low mood.
The quality of people’s sleep is affected by the hormone melatonin, which is secreted during darkness, she says, so a good night’s sleep is easier in a dark room.
“If children fall asleep with a computer on in the background, or near light from some other technology, it will affect the quality of their sleep, even if they fall asleep at a reasonable time.
“Parents need to think about whether their children are sleep deprived,” she advises, “and if so, take steps to start a very simple bedtime routine again.”
She says such routines are relevant at any age, even for adults, as it’s the time when people wind down.
“Adults and children need to have a time when they just prepare themselves for bed and turn everything off.
“As well as helping people unwind, it helps you to feel better – more in control knowing you’ll be able to cope with the next day.”
Grace stresses that if parents get children of any age into a bedtime routine, it can make the whole family happier – even if the kids resist at first.
“Sometimes it’s really worth the battle. If you say everything off at 9pm, or whatever the appropriate time is for the age of your child, if you can weather the storm and give rewards and praise for doing it, they’ll feel better and parents will too, as they’re in control and they’re helping to improve their children’s wellbeing.”
Grace and the Travelodge report say children normally need between 10 to 12 hours sleep a night, although it drops slightly in the teenage years. The report found that 74% of parents think seven hours is sufficient sleep for their kids.
However, Professor Colin Espie, director of the University of Glasgow Sleep Centre, insists that there’s “no one-size fits all” time period for sleep.
“Parents should know how much sleep their children need, just like they should know how much food they need,” he says.
“There are individual differences. Most parents know that even their own kids are different from each other at exactly the same age.
“As parents we expect to figure most things out – and it does take time. Quoting norms at particular ages absolutely isn’t helpful.”
He agrees that schoolchildren and their parents aren’t taking sleep seriously enough.
“Sleep isn’t a lifestyle option but, like breathing, is absolutely essential,” he stresses.
“Adequate sleep is required for the brain to function at its best. Healthy living needs to take not just diet and exercise but also sleep into account.
“So far sleep has been greatly neglected as a public health issue.”