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Wired and Tired: Electronics and Sleep Disturbance in Children

Wired & Tired: Electronics and Sleep Disturbance in Children

Does your child have trouble sleeping, concentrating, or getting up in the morning? Do they sleep plenty of hours but seem exhausted? Sleep difficulties in children are on the rise—and I expect this trend will get worse before it gets better.

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, estimates for the number of children with abnormal sleep range from 1 in 10 in the general population, to 50-75% in children with mental health or developmental/neurological disorders.

In my practice, parents frequently report their child does not fall asleep easily, is restless at night, or is extremely irritable and disorganized in the morning. Adolescents frequently complain that they can't sleep, and then feel exhausted the next day—only to have the pattern repeat the following night. As one teen aptly put it, she felt "wired and tired."

A growing body of evidence shows that video games and other electronics induce the fight-or-flight syndrome, putting the body in a state of stress. Studies show sustained increases in blood pressure and pulse, even hours after playing a video game. It doesn't have to be a violent game, or even an action game-or even a game at all! Over time, internet surfing and texting will similarly put the brain and body in a state of stress, just from the high level of visual and cognitive stimulation.

These changes inevitably cause sleep issues. Even if your child sleeps for eight to ten hours, it doesn't mean their sleep is restorative. If they're "revved up" enough during the day, primitive areas of the brain kick in, and send signals to be on-the-alert. From an evolutionary point of view, being vigilant serves to protect us from potential predators. But there's a cost: deep sleep is sacrificed (because deeper sleep makes one more vulnerable), causing the restorative stages of sleep, stages three and four, to be cut short.

Aside from the fight-or-flight state, there are (at least) two other ways video games and electronic devices alter sleep. Both of these reactions reduce melatonin, the chemical signal that tells your brain it's time to sleep:

  1. The first is due to the unnatural brightness of the screen. Normally, melatonin is released by darkness, and inhibitted by light. When the eyes experience intense brightness, they channel that bright light directly to the brain, shutting down the sleep switch. Sleep/wake cycles, or circadian rhythms, are also disrupted. Studies show that dysregulated circadian rhythms causes mood, concentration, and hormonal dysfunction.
  2. The second has to do with electromagnetic radiation (EMR), a by-product of anything electronic. Monitors, anything wireless, and internet use compound the level of EMR, making handheld video games particularly toxic. Like bright light, EMR disrupts melatonin release. (It also exacerbates the fight-or-flight state, which you now know is a killer for adequate rest.)

The Kempton West Study in Germany (2007) showed that residents exposed to a wireless cell phone transmitter (which emits high amounts of EMR) installed nearby developed dramatic changes in their melatonin and serotonin (another brain chemical, related to feeling calm and having a sense of well-being) regulation, within five months of the wireless transmitter arriving. Interestingly, nighttime melatonin was reduced in the majority of the subjects, while daytime melatonin increased. Essentially, the melatonin release "flattened out" and shifted to being released in the morning. This effectively reduced deep sleep and at the same time caused a feeling of exhaustion upon awakening in the study participants—the "wired and tired" effect.

It's important to remember that children's brains are more sensitive to environmental influences than adults, because a young brain is actively growing and changing, among other reasons. It's not as "hard-wired" as an adult brain. With some children, it's obvious when they're not getting adequate shut-eye. With others, it's harder to tell. Here are some signs your child might not be getting restorative sleep:

  • Complaints of not being able to sleep (even if it appears otherwise)
  • Dark circles under the eyes
  • Poor memory, poor focus
  • Difficulty with learning retention
  • Hard to wake up in the morning
  • Disorganized in the morning
  • Irritability and meltdowns

The good news is that correcting sleep often improves or even reverses mental health symptoms. If you suspect your child may not be sleeping well, or exhibits any of the above, go old-school and simply "unplug" them. Give your child's brain a rest for a few weeks. Children will naturally engage in more physical, creative play in the absence of electronic entertainment, and won't be as "wired."

This sets the stage for healthy sleep, and you may not only banish the wired-and-tired syndrome ... you may see a happier and more focused child you barely recognize.

More from Victoria L. Dunckley M.D.
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