For many people, using a smartphone does not stop at bedtime. Even in a state of sleep, the phenomenon known as sleep texting keeps a person interacting with technology. One of us (Elizabeth) conducted a study of sleep texting among college students, and the prevalence was surprising.
Helping children to get a better night’s sleep is a nearly universal parenting goal that now includes managing technology. At night, most parents would never tuck in their baby or toddler with a smartphone on their chest. Nevertheless, as children become more connected it is getting harder for them to disengage and settle down for sleep.
Parents need to set boundaries for their children at all ages and for themselves as well, given that they are their kids’ best role models.
The bedroom is a special space. Parents often grant children considerable autonomy there. Children may establish some of their own rules, like knock before entering or no visitors before noon on weekends. But whatever your age, technology should not be in bed with you because you need your sleep.
Many children are not meeting basic sleep requirements and sleep quality is a reliable gauge of overall health. Adequate sleep is essential for a child’s physical growth, learning, good health, creativity, emotional well being and weight control. The increasing prevalence of electronics in children’s bedrooms can negatively impact sleep time, sleep quality and daytime alertness. Research shows that:
The sanctity of sleep requires protection, now more than ever before. We recommend that all smart devices should be removed from the bedroom at bedtime – start this behavior early in a child’s life. Leave the tech in another room. The devices can charge there. Your children can recharge in their beds.
The important thing to understand is that this behavior is learned. In part, it is the product of what one of us (Brett) and colleague Evan Selinger call techno-social engineering in our book Re-Engineering Humanity. Various hyper-personalized technologies are designed to capture and keep our attention, literally 24 hours a day.
Parental rules, boundaries, and role modeling combine to have a profound effect on children’s beliefs, preferences, and behaviors. Research suggests that college students who grew up with rules prohibiting phones in the bedroom are not sleeping with phones in their beds but are placing the phone on a table or desk. In contrast other students report they feel they must have their phone turned on and in bed. Some were embarrassed about sleep texting so they wore mittens or socks to stop the behavior, instead of turning off the phone.
We know that it can feel almost impossible to keep bedrooms tech-free. But sleep should be free from the creeping (often creepy) tethers of digital technology. We need to grant ourselves freedom to be “off” and free from the constant push and pull of smart gadgets. To do this, each of us should build a steep wall and wide moat (proverbially) to keep out the beeps, vibrations, and other attention-grabbing stimuli that assault our minds, whether we’re awake or not.
Many people think it is perfectly fine to give young children a tablet or smartphone for entertainment, enlightenment, or just to keep them occupied and quiet. Maybe that’s fine; maybe it’s not. That’s not our battle. Think about what is in your child’s bedroom or what is in their bed; no one in their right mind would substitute a smartphone for a stuffed animal at bedtime.