In Brief

Does staring at screens affect children’s sleep?

Oxford University study challenges widespread fears that gadget use disrupts youngsters’ rest

Parents who fear that excessive screen time may be disrupting children’s sleep have nothing to worry about, new research suggests. 

Scientists from the Oxford University’s Internet Institute say the relationship between how long a child spends in front of a screen and sleep patterns is “extremely modest” at most. That verdict contradicts previous studies that have claimed excessive use of gadgets is to blame for up to 90% of school-age children not getting enough sleep, The Daily Telegraph reports. 

The Oxford research found that children experienced only three to eight minutes of sleep less for every hour spent in front of a screen. 

Professor Andrew Przybylski, author of the study, said parents should focus on “bedtime routines and regular patterns of sleep”, rather than “thinking screens themselves play a significant role”.

He also claims that the small sample sizes used in previous studies have skewed the results. 

“Because the effects of screens are so modest, it is possible that many studies with smaller sample sizes could be false positives, results that support an effect that in reality does not exist,” Przybylski explained.

More research needed

The new study looked at 50,000 children aged between six months and 17 years, using data from a 2016 US study in which parents from across the country completed surveys about their households. 

Not everyone is convinced by the findings, however.

Speaking to the BBC, UK-based GP Rangan Chatterjee said he still plans to advise parents to tell their children to switch off devices an hour before going to bed.

“The more research on this area, the better because screens are here to stay,” Chatterjee said. “But the findings don’t replicate what I see in clinical practice, which is that the use of screens right before bed has a significant impact on the quality of sleep.”

Przybylski also admits that the results from the study are “imperfect” because the US survey data relied on reports from parents, rather than from the children themselves. 

Many leading firms including Apple, Google and Facebook have introduced dashboards that allow people to keep a record of how long they spend on screens.

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