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 a baby or toddler with a smartphone. 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, such as 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 effect sleep time, sleep quality, and daytime alertness. Research shows that:

  • Children using electronic media as a sleep aid to relax at night have later weekday bedtimes, experience fewer hours of sleep a week, and report more daytime sleepiness.
  • Adolescents with a bedroom television have later bedtimes, more difficulty initiating sleep, and shorter total sleep times.
  • Texting and emailing after lights outs, even once a week, dramatically increases self-reported daytime sleepiness among adolescents.
  • The burden of homework is great for many of our children and their work is often completed on the computer, a significant light source late in the evening.

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 that they believe 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 and 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; none of us in our right mind would substitute a smartphone for a stuffed animal at bedtime.

Elizabeth B. Dowdell is a professor at the M. Louise Fitzpatrick College of Nursing at Villanova University; Brett M. Frischmann is the Charles Widger Endowed University Professor in Law, Business and Economics at Villanova, and co-author of “Re-Engineering Humanity.”