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Computers, Television Before Bedtime can Sabotage Kid’s School Work

Dallas, TX – September 30, 2002

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Parents who want their children to get plenty of sleep, grow up healthy and do well in school often harbor sleep saboteurs under their roofs — sometimes in the children’s own bedrooms.

Dr. John Herman, a sleep expert at UT Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas, said recent sleep studies have shown that watching television and working on the computer – pastimes many parents assume will quiet their charges before bed – may rouse their children and sabotage the bedtime hour. The sleep saboteurs’ secret weapons, the researcher said, are the bright lights behind the television and computer screens that act as stimulants on the brain.

“Sleep researchers have known for a long time that both children and teens who follow a regular early-to-bed, early-to-rise sleep schedule perform better at learning activities than those who are not on a schedule compatible with the body’s natural circadian clock,” said Herman, associate professor of psychiatry. The circadian clock regulates the body’s 24-hour cycle, which includes sleeping, waking and eating.

“Bright lights on television sets and computers can actually reset the circadian clock so that even small amounts can change the sleep/wake cycle so that the person goes to sleep later and thus wakes up later.”

Shutting down electronic stimulation at least 30 minutes before bedtime, he said, can allow sleep to arrive in a more timely fashion. But if the TV/computer-before-bed pattern persists, the child’s sleep/wake pattern will be pushed later into the night and later into the morning, said Herman, who directs the sleep lab at Children’s Medical Center of Dallas.

The best time to work on a computer – or even spend a little time in front of the television set – is very early in the morning, when stimulation will help ready the student for a day of learning, he said.

Herman stressed that not only is maintaining a regular sleep schedule during the school year important, but also during vacation time. A father himself, the researcher said he knows that bedtime battles are common, and parents often think it’s much easier to give in during vacations; however, there are many good reasons to see that children and teens get plenty of sleep, no matter the time of year. In fact, research shows that both children and teens, who are growing and experiencing major changes in their systems, need from nine to 10 hours of sleep a day.

“Everyone’s busier today, and that includes kids,” he said. “They participate in more activities, socialize more, work more, talk on the phone more and use computers a great deal of the time. They face more competition.

“Yet both kids and teen-agers today tend to sleep less; however, that doesn’t mean their need for sleep is diminished. Adequate sleep provides the best climate for learning, and lack of it impacts behavior, emotions and athletic performance.”

Even though the school year has begun, Herman said it’s not too late to change your children’s sleep behavior if they’re staying up late and resisting getting up in the morning. Have them start going to bed an hour earlier and keep to it, he said.

“They’ll soon begin waking earlier and getting tired earlier. Also be sure they don’t have books buried under the covers and aren’t watching TV or using their computers,” Herman advised.