We know sleep is good for our kids and too much screen time is bad for our kids – but do we know why?

Kids, Screentime and Sleep

We know sleep is good for our kids and too much screen time is bad for our kids – but do we know why?

I recently attended a Parenting Teens Seminar in Sydney and was very impressed with the ‘Digital Wellness’ content I learnt from Dr Kristy Goodwin.

Dr Kristy was an early childhood and primary school teacher for 14 years before going back to Uni to get her PhD in how the design of young children’s media impacts their learning.

One thing Dr Kristy said in the seminar that really made sense to me was that lack of sleep is quickly becoming a global health crisis. She referred to work by Matt Walker, a leader in the field of sleep (or lack of sleep).

We know that sleep and screentime both have the potential to impact positively or negatively on the physical, social, mental and emotional wellbeing of our kids – so let’s talk about what science knows about each of these topics first and then put it altogether.


According to current Australian guidelines, kids aged:

  • 3- 5yrs need 11-14 hours of sleep per 24 hours
  • 5-13yrs need 9-11 hours of uninterrupted sleep per night
  • 13-17yrs need 8– 10 hours of uninterrupted sleep per night.

When our kids are asleep amazing stuff happens:

  • Growth hormone is released into their bodies and they physically grow
  • T-cells are made by their immune system
  • Anything new they have learnt that day is moved from their short term memory into their long term memory
  • Their brain prepares itself for anything new they might learn tomorrow by updating neural pathways (pruning pathways that are no longer being used)
  • Their physical bodies (including vital organs) are rested and rejuvenated for the upcoming day.

The Australian Guidelines for screentime (including TV, computers, smartphones, tablets and gaming devices) are:

  • 0-2yrs NO screentime
  • 2-5yrs 1 hour per day
  • 5-18yrs 2 hours per day

These recommendations do not include educational screentime (or using a device for schoolwork at school and at home).

Recent Australian research on screentime in 1,977 families in Melbourne found:

  • 0-2yrs were using screens 2 hours a day on average (and some of this was without parental supervision)
  • 2-6yrs were using screens 3.7 hours on average a day (again without parental supervision at times)
  • 6-13yrs were using screens 4.5 hours on average a day (again without parental supervision)
  • 13-18yrs were using screens for just over 6 hours a day on average (without parental supervision)
  • Parents were using computers for an average of 5.5 hours per day.

Interestingly, these usages included screentime for educational purposes (like homework assignments) but only at home.

We know sleep is good for our kids and too much screen time is bad for our kids – but do we know why?

Why is too much screentime bad for kids?

Evidence has found that too much screentime can:

  • Delay language development in young children
  • Reduce real life social interactions with peers and family (and thereby delay children’s social development)
  • Reduce children’s time outside in nature
  • Harm children’s vision and eye health (myopia – short sightedness)
  • Increase family conflict (the ‘techno-tantrum’ kids throw when they are asked to put away their screen is actually a neurological phenomenon. Social media and gaming are set up to give kids intermittent dopamine rewards, which give them a sense of achievement. When you interrupt this you are the baddie!
  • Increase children’s body weight and risk of obesity
  • Expose children to unsuitable content including violence, horror and pornography
  • Increase depression for social media users
  • Increase mental health issues including depression and anxiety
  • Reduces children’s sleep

This blog post is only looking at the relationship between sleep and screentime! If you want to find out more on any of the above just hit the links provided.

Screentime and sleep

The direct links between screentime and sleep are:

  • Blue light from screens after sunset upsets children’s natural circadian rhythms because the blue light imitates natural light which means the pineal gland thinks it is still daytime so it delays the production of melatonin (melatonin makes us tired).
  • Children’s brains are aroused by fast paced action content (gaming), or social-emotional content (group chats), which keeps them alert and prevents them from feeling tired (it is hard to be tired when you are wired!)
  • Beeps and notifications from devices in the night prevent children entering deep sleep, which is when and where all the amazing stuff listed above happens. (If they don’t get 4 to 6 cycles of deep sleep it negatively affects their growth hormone production, growth, T-cell and immune system, neural pathway pruning, memory formation and physical rest and rejuvenation.)
  • Inappropriate images from screens including violence, horror and pornography cause anxiety in children, which makes it difficult for children to fall to sleep. These re-occurring images also cause nightmares, which interrupts children’s sleep (especially in children under 10).
  • Children wake themselves up earlier than their body would naturally wake up so they can get on their device to continue their games, viewing or social media before they have to get ready for school.
How to overcome the negatives of too much screentime and too little sleep

To come up with screentime guidelines that suit you and your family it might be helpful to ask yourself these questions:

  1. Do you have daily screentime usage limits for your child (or children)? And do you reinforce these?
  2. Is your child allowed to use devices in their bedroom?
  3. Do you have a charging area in the house where all your families portable devices ‘go to bed’ at a certain time?
  4. Do you have parental controls on your child’s devices to stop them ‘accidentally’ stumbling across inappropriate content?
  5. Do you have night shift mode enabled on devices?
  6. Does your child get enough activity outside in the natural light each day?
  7. Do you know your child’s password to their device?
  8. Do you occasionally sit with your child to see what they use their device for?
  9. Do you know who their friends are on social media? (For kids over 13)
  10. Do you know what games they are playing on their device?
  11. Do you openly talk about inappropriate content like violence, horror and pornography if and when the opportunity arises?
  12. Do you have rules about when and where screens can be used? (E.g. meal times?)
  13. Do you have rules about who your child can connect with online?
  14. What are you modelling to your child with your own use of screens?

It is worth mentioning here that it may be easier just to ban our kids from devices and screens altogether – but that is not the answer. Nor is taking away their devices as a consequence for other behaviour. Taking your teenagers phone as punishment will most likely result in your teenager becoming more and more disconnected from you (you hurt them, they are going to hurt you back).

If you would like more detailed information on anything to do with children and screens I highly recommend checking out Dr Kristy’s website and blog posts! If you are passionate about your child growing up to be as healthy, happy and neurological sound as they can be, then help them get the recommended amount of sleep!

Enjoy your kids, your screens and remember to sleep tight!

Love Kathy, Sparky and Shady

New Affordable Sparky and Shady Workshops in January 2020, details here.