Computers, smartphones and TVs: how electronics might be affecting your teen’s sleep

Photo of young woman looking at a computer screen in a dark room.

Exposure to blue light after sunset can have a delaying effect on our sleep cycles.

It’s the beginning of the end of summer, which means it’s time to start getting into the rhythm of the school year. One of the simplest actions you can take to increase your child’s performance is to make sure they’re getting enough sleep—because a sleep deficit of one hour can translate into a substantial decrease in their cognitive performance.

The solution seems simple enough: have your teen go to bed earlier and reap the health benefits that come with a full night’s rest—but there’s a culprit keeping you and your teen awake at night: blue light.

Natural blue light is emitted during the day, but most electronics also expose us to this wavelength of light. Recent research shows that artificial blue light has a delaying effect on our sleep cycle. “In terms of light and our brains, there is a spectrum of light wavelengths that impacts the human circadian system. Blue light is in the most sensitive side of the spectrum,” says David Earnest, Ph.D., professor at Texas A&M Health Science Center College of Medicine, who has conducted extensive research on circadian rhythms and how their disruption may affect human health.

We are exposed to blue-spectrum lighting throughout the day, which signals to our brain that it is time to be awake. As the day continues and the sun sets, the light shifts to the red side of the spectrum. Following this shift, and the subsequent arrival of night, melatonin levels in the blood begin to increase and this informs our bodies that it’s time to sleep.

Since teenagers have different sleep patterns than most adults, they are naturally predisposed to go to sleep and wake up later than the regular nine-to-five daily schedule allows. If your teenager continues their exposure to blue light after sunset with computers and phones, their “delayed” sleep cycle may become difficult to reconcile with their school schedule.

Short of ditching smartphones and computers, it’s difficult to eliminate our exposure to artificial blue light at night. Earnest offers a few options to reduce the effect of blue light on your teen’s sleep schedule:

Implement a ‘no electronics’ rule for bedrooms

This is the simplest method for cutting out late-night blue light exposure. By encouraging your teen to leave their phones and computers out of their bedrooms, they will find it easier to go to bed at an earlier time.

Working late at night on their computer can create sleep problems, which can then develop into poor school and task performance. By removing computers and other electronics from their rooms, your child’s bedroom will be more conducive to sleep. This way they will be more likely to get a full night’s rest and then can be at the top of their game in class.

Minimize blue light exposure

If completely banning all electronics from your teenager’s room seems like cruel and unusual punishment, don’t fret—there are ways to negate artificial blue light without incurring your teen’s wrath!

For those who are unwilling to disconnect after dark, Earnest suggests investing in a pair of amber-lensed glasses, which will block all blue light after the sun sets. These glasses will allow your teenager to use the computer or their phone without the melatonin-suppressing effects of blue light. While wearing sunglasses indoors may seem silly, this is the most comprehensive option for blocking all blue light exposure, since it will even block the blue spectrum light that normal residential light bulbs can emit.

Another option is to change the light spectrum on your computer screen. This may be as simple as adjusting your screen settings, but the process varies from computer to computer. If the process is too complex, there’s always f.lux, an application that shifts the light spectrum of your computer, tablet or even smartphone depending on the time of day. While this application won’t shield your teen from all blue light, it will reduce the amount they are exposed to.

Encourage a regular sleep schedule

It’s no secret that sleep is important; it’s when our bodies metabolize food, repair muscles and when our brains take a break to prepare for the next day. But did you know that maintaining a regular sleep cycle every night could help prevent chronic diseases such as diabetes, obesity, heart disease and even breast cancer?

According to Earnest, people who receive an adequate amount of sleep but at different times every day, such as shift workers, are also at a higher risk of developing a chronic disease. By encouraging your child to go to sleep and wake up at the same time everyday, you can ensure that they get enough rest and help protect them from developing dangerous health effects later in life. Blue light aside, maintaining a regular daily schedule can help promote better performance in school and a healthier life for your child.

For more information on the importance of sleep, please visit National Institutes of Health.

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