What Are Smartphones Doing to Kids' Sleep?

... and 4 things we can do right now to limit sleep disruption.

Posted Nov 20, 2015

tab62/Shutterstock
Source: tab62/Shutterstock

There’s an ongoing sleep study that is of great interest to me, and I expect to many others as well: For the first time, scientists will be examining the effects of mobile phone emissions on sleep and brain activity in children and teenagers. Researchers recently began this study at Illawarra Health and Medical Research Institute at Australia’s University of Wollongong. The research investigates the effects of RF EMF (radiofrequency electromagnetic field) exposure from mobile phones on the sleep, brain patterns, and cognitive function of youth ages 10-18.

Researchers have previously examined the RF EMF emissions from mobile phones and other technology in adults, but never in children. But while research has not demonstrated conclusively that RF EMF emissions are a cause of adverse or long-term health effects in adults, studies have shown that these emissions appear to affect brain activity and sleep patterns in adults.

Now, for the first time, we’ll have an opportunity to see what effects may exist in children. It is not my intention to stir alarm. We all want our children to be safe and healthy. But while the unknowns here are frightening for many, there is no reason for panic. I think this is a deeply important avenue of research, worthy of attention. Beginning to grasp more comprehensively the effects of mobile phone use in children and teens is essential to parents’ ability to guide their families toward using technology safely and responsibly. 

Let’s take a look at some of the evidence scientists have uncovered about the impact of RF EMF emissions on adults: Research has demonstrated that these emissions alter brain activity during at least some phases of sleep, and also on waking cognitive function. But the evidence so far is mixed, and we haven’t yet seen enough research to form a clear picture of the exact effects on sleep and waking cognition. We don’t yet know what long-term effects are likely from RF EMF emissions that come from mobile phones and other technology. Nor have we seen conclusive evidence of negative health effects from these emissions.

Clearly, we still have a lot to learn about the impact of these emissions to which most of us now routinely expose ourselves.

Some studies have shown that RF EMF emissions can alter sleeping brain activity, increasing the frequency of brain waves during non-REM sleep after nighttime exposure. Other research has shown alterations to sleep architecture—the cyclical structure of sleep phases we experience throughout the course of a night—specifically with changes to the amount of time spent in slow-wave sleep. There is research that indicates RF EMF exposure may lead to changes in waking cognitive performance. The observable cognitive changes in studies include reduced reaction speed, increased accuracy of working memory, and diminished performance on motor tasks. Several studies suggest that there is a high degree of individual variability in the brain’s response to RF EMF exposure, meaning that there may be a significant range of difference among individuals in their response to the same level of exposure.

When it comes to the possible impact of RF EMF exposure, there exist special concerns and considerations for children, whose brains and nervous systems are still developing, and therefore may have heightened sensitivity to these emissions.

Whether or not mobile phone emissions are altering sleep, brain function, and cognitive performance, there is substantial research that shows how the presence of phones and other technology in our nighttime lives is already hurting sleep and waking performance.

A recent report from Singapore found that half of student participants in a survey said they slept poorly because of using their smartphone or tablet just before going to bed. This aligns with other studies and reports indicating that smartphones and other devices may be wreaking havoc on sleep. Nighttime smartphone and tablet use exposes adults (and children) to artificial light—and high concentrations of blue wavelength light, which is particularly effective at suppressing melatonin and causing delay and disruption to sleep. Smartphone use in the evenings is linked to delayed sleep onset—the time it takes to fall asleep—as well as disruptions to circadian timing, reduced daytime alertness, and diminished next-day performance at work. Not surprisingly, the sleep-disruptive effects of smartphone use present themselves most frequently in younger people, who are often the heaviest consumers of the technology. In children, sleeping near a small screen—including smartphones—as well as higher amounts of overall screen time, are both associated with less overall sleep time.

We have some waiting to do before we see the results of the ongoing RF EMF study on children. But that doesn’t mean we have to wait idly. There are a number of steps you can take today to help ensure that your child’s use of mobile phones isn’t disrupting sleep:

  1. Set up an electronic curfew.

    One hour before bedtime, shut down all electronics—that includes smartphones, tablets, computers, even the TV. This will give kids a chance to wind down before bed, and avoid the stimulating and melatonin-suppressing effects of artificial light exposure that are counterproductive to sleep.
     
  2. Create a central charging station.

    Identify a place in your home where cell phones, tablets, and other devices can charge. Make sure to place your charging station away from all sleeping areas. Commit to charging your devices and your children’s devices in this one area, and you’ll avoid having phones and other devices charging on anyone's bedside.
     
  3. Don’t use smartphones as alarm clocks.

    The seemingly endless utility of smartphones is a great part of their appeal, but sleeping with your phone next to your head for the alarm simply isn’t necessary, for you or your child. Invest in old-fashioned alarm clocks if you need an alarm to wake you or your kids.
     
  4. Use earbuds.

    Limit the amount of time that a smartphone is physically close to your head by using hands-free earbuds and microphones. Make sure your children use ear buds or other hands-free devices for talking on their phones whenever possible.

Navigating technology with children and teenagers isn’t easy, especially when it comes to nighttime and sleep. While we wait for answers, moderation and common sense can go a long way to help keep kids from overexposure to phones and other technologies, which will help protect their sleep at night—and their ability to learn and perform during the day.

Sweet Dreams,
Michael J. Breus, PhD
The Sleep Doctor™
www.thesleepdoctor.com