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Oxford study finds screen time doesn’t disrupt children’s sleep


The  University of Oxford study found almost no difference in overall sleep duration between children who used no screens and those who used screens for up to eight hours a day(Credit: PedroPlayaPic/Depositphotos)

Perhaps one of the biggest dilemmas faced by parents in the 21st century is how much screen time their child should be allowed. A new study from the University of Oxford may set some parent’s minds at ease, finding screen time has little to no effect on the duration of a child’s sleep.

While many of us grew up with a television in the corner of the room, these days the omnipresence of screens is presenting modern parents with a whole new ball game of concerns. Many recent policy statements from doctors and government bodies have suggested screen time should be restricted to between one and two hours per day, although it still is quite unclear exactly how prominent the negative effects of excessive screen time actually are.

Lack of sleep is a growing problem for school-age children in the 21st century. Studies are suggesting anywhere from 50 to 90 percent of children are not getting enough sleep, and some researchers are hypothesizing the influx of digital technology as the culprit.

Andrew Przybylski, from the Oxford Internet Institute at the University of Oxford, set out to examine what actual correlation could be found between screen time and sleep in children. A large sample size of 50,000 children from across the United States was gathered, and the overall results were rather comprehensive.

“The findings suggest that the relationship between sleep and screen use in children is extremely modest,” says Przybylski. “Every hour of screen time was related to 3 to 8 fewer minutes of sleep a night.”

Przybylski suggests, in real-world terms, that the ultimate effect of screen time on a child’s sleep is inconsequential. The study revealed that the average night of sleep for a teenager who abstains from all uses of technology was relatively similar to that of a teenager who spends about eight hours a day using screens.

One of the big limitations in this particular study is that it grouped overall aggregate screen time into a single daily figure. So there is no granular detail to suggest whether screen time closer to bedtime, or late at night, specifically disrupts sleep. However Przybylski notes that the overall finding that there’s no inherent link between screen time and sleep duration holds strong regardless of the limitations, and other variables must be considered when considering children and sleep.

“Focusing on bedtime routines and regular patterns of sleep, such as consistent wake-up times, are much more effective strategies for helping young people sleep than thinking screens themselves play a significant role,” says Przybylski.

This isn’t the first time Przybylski has waded into the screen time debate to present a controversial research conclusion. Last year the Oxford researcher presented a study suggesting screen time can, in some instances, actually increase a teenager’s well being.

That study, examining 120,000 teenagers, revealed well-being increased as screen-time increased, until a certain point where screen usage could begin to be associated with decreased well-being. Przybylski suggested there is a “digital sweet-spot” where a certain volume of screen time can be beneficial, compared to no screen time at all.

Of course this is only the beginning of the research journey according to Przybylski, with this latest study hopefully functioning as a “robust empirical baseline” for future researchers to build upon. The next stage is to try to home in on specific contextual effects, such as timing of screen usage. and individual technologies, such as the differences between tablets and phones.

“Screens are here to stay, so transparent, reproducible, and robust research is needed to figure out how tech affects us and how we best intervene to limit its negative effects,” says Przybylski.

The new study was published in The Journal of Pediatrics.

Source: University of Oxford