Three quarters of children aged between six months and three years in the UK use devices such as an iPad or Smartphone every day, according to researchers at Birkbeck, University of London and King’s College London.
Light emitted by electronic screens has been shown to lower levels of the sleep-regulating hormone melatonin in adults – and this could also be the case for young children, said Tim Smith, a psychology lecturer who carried out the study.
“The devices are in the parents’ pockets all the time. The children learn this is a thing of interest, and then they themselves get interested in the device,” he told The Independent.
“Parents are wondering what the potential impact might be on their children, but the technology is such a recent introduction into family life that the science isn’t really there to inform parents, or give them guidelines on how they should be using them.”
He added: “We didn’t have a daily diary in the study, so we didn’t know exactly when the children are using the devices, but the total time they used the device during the day was associated with these sleep differences.”
The study also revealed positive impacts of touchscreen use among toddlers, including improvements to motor skills that meant they were able to stack blocks earlier. Dr. Smith and his colleagues sent an online survey to 715 parents about their child’s daily touchscreen use and sleep habits. They found that for each extra hour spent before a touch-activated screen, the children lost nearly 16 minutes of sleep.
“The wave length of light is not what they’re usually getting at twilight or night time, so that could be suppressing melatonin that’s necessary for sleep. It could just be the general level of distraction and stimulation children are getting,” said Dr. Smith.
“But it could be to do with the families. The screen may not be causing this problem at all, but the increased use of the screen could be symptomatic of something else about the child, such as hyperactivity.
Around half of babies aged six to 11 months used a touchscreen daily, with the rate increasing to 92 per cent among two year olds.
Some academics have raised doubts about the validity of the study’s findings – with statistics expert Kevin McConway saying those who choose to respond to online surveys is “hardly typical of UK families”.
“Of the mothers involved, a huge 45 per cent had a postgraduate qualification, and in all 86 per cent had a university-level qualification. In the 2011 census, only about a third of women of child-bearing age in England and Wales had a university qualification,” said Professor McConway.
“We aren’t given much more information about the families in the survey, but if they are so untypical in this way, they could be untypical in other ways too. In particular, would parents who choose to respond to a survey about touchscreen use be typical in terms of their young children’s touchscreen use? We just can’t tell.”
Anna Joyce, a developmental psychology research associate at Coventry University, said the study opens the way for future research to investigate exactly how touchscreen use affects sleep.
“This is an important area of research since we know that sleep is critically important for children’s healthy development; children who sleep well have better attention, memory and other cognitive abilities, and consequently do better at school relative to their peers who do not sleep well,” she said.
“Until we know more about how touchscreens affect sleep, they shouldn’t be banned completely, as there may also be cognitive benefits associated with their use, for example, as the authors showed in their previous work, for the development of fine motor skills.”