Beware of the timing—and type—of media content they are exposed to during the day and just before bedtime if you want to help your child get a good night's sleep. That's the message from a new children's sleep study conducted by researchers at Seattle Children's Research Institute that found sleep problems in preschoolers may be made much worse both by exposure to violent media content and watching TV at night.
As HealthDay reports, Seattle researchers reviewed parent surveys and media diaries from 617 preschoolers. On average, the kids consumed nearly 73 minutes of screen time daily, with 14 minutes occurring after 7 PM. Children with TVs in their bedrooms logged more screen time and were more likely to have trouble sleeping. Eighteen percent of study participants experienced at least one sleep problem five to seven days per week and the most frequent issue was difficulty falling asleep. Other sleep problems reported by parents included nightmares, waking during the night, trouble with morning alertness, and daytime sleepiness. Researchers note that each additional hour of evening media use was linked to a significant jump in sleep problems, as was viewing of violent content at any time during the day.
"We definitely thought there would be an effect from violent content and evening content, but we saw that any evening content was a problem—it didn't really matter for sleep if it was violent," says study author Michelle M. Garrison, a research scientist at Seattle Children's Research Institute (via HealthDay). "Also, we had been assuming a lot of them were watching programs really intended for adults and teens, but the bulk of it was children's programs aimed at ages 7 to 12."
Fallen into the habit of letting your toddler watch TV with his older siblings, even if this means watching the latest zombie movie? According to Garrison, very young children tend to interpret many kinds of violence similarly, from slapstick cartoon pranks to true-life gunfights on the news. "For 3- to 5-year-olds, they're just really different in how they perceive media content compared to older children," she says. "Older kids can grasp what's real and what's not. To preschoolers, animated violence is just as scary as real violence."
Keeping kids away from violent TV, movies, and video games seems like commonsense, but as screens continue to pop up everywhere, from our smartphones to computer screens and TVs in bedrooms, researchers urge parents to reevaluate children's exposure to media—for their health's sake. "Early childhood sleep disruption has been associated with obesity, behavior problems, and poor school performance," Garrison tells HealthDay. "We advise parents to choose non-violent media content, and to avoid media screen time entirely during the hour before bed. Removing televisions and other media devices from the child's bedroom can be an important first step."