How screens are shaping teen sleep—and what you can do about it

Brad M. Griffin Image Brad M. Griffin | Jul 24, 2019

Photo by Matheus Vinicius

“Headed to bed soon?”

“Wrap it up, okay?”

“Time for bed.”

“No, really. Go to bed.”

“Why are you still up?”

Those who live with teenagers might be familiar with this kind of evening routine, or perhaps with its cousin: ignoring the issue altogether to avoid conflict. Some of us pick the approach depending on the night.

In some ways, grappling with teenagers over bedtime has been a perennial rite of passage for parents. It’s developmentally appropriate, after all. Teenagers’ sleep rhythms shift around mid-adolescence and their bodies prefer staying up late and sleeping far into the day. While this adjustment is natural, it presents problems in many households because school still starts early and sleep-deprived teenagers are, well, hard to deal with in the morning.

While grandparents may smugly consider this payback for their kids of a generation ago, today’s environment provides a whole new challenge for our teenagers: ever-connected screens.

Our kids are growing up in a world where glowing screens pervade our days and light up our nights. In this new normal, sleep suffers.

Tweet this: Our kids are growing up in a world where glowing screens pervade our days and light up our nights. In this new normal, sleep suffers.

In a recent report, Screens and Sleep, research firm Common Sense Media explores what it calls “the new normal”—the ways screens are reshaping the sleep habits of US teenagers, and why we should be concerned. Based on a study of 1,000 parents and their children nationwide, these findings shed new light on our new normal. Here are just a few of the highlights.

The concerning news

Teens and adults are using screens right up till bedtime

Despite prevailing medical and research advice to cut screentime within an hour of bedtime, two thirds of parents and 70 percent of kids check a mobile device within 30 minutes of falling asleep at night.

Devices are going to bed with us

What’s more, 68 percent of young people in the study admitted to taking devices to bed at night (keeping them within reach), and one third sleep with these devices IN their beds. Only 20 percent of teenagers keep devices in another room at night.

Over one third of teenagers say they wake up at least once per night to check these devices. A quarter of parents say the same. Two thirds of parents keep devices within reach all night.

We wake up with our devices

One third of teenagers check their mobile devices within five minutes of waking up (not including using it as an alarm clock); over 60 percent within the first thirty minutes. Again, parents’ behavior patterns are nearly identical.

Girls are more likely than boys to lose sleep over tech

This study found that girls are more likely than boys to: sleep with their mobile device in bed, check it after falling asleep because of a notification, wake up specifically to check social media, and check their mobile device within the first five minutes of waking up. Combined, these factors may put girls at higher risk for sleep loss.

Sleep matters—especially for teenagers

Why worry about sleep when there are so many other tech dangers that concern us? In short, sleep matters for teenagers. Despite their biological tendency to stay up later, they have an equally strong biological need to get enough sleep for all their bodies and minds are doing every day.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends 8-10 hours of sleep per night for teenagers, citing the following rationale:

“Adequate sleep duration for age on a regular basis leads to improved attention, behavior, learning, memory, emotional regulation, quality of life, and mental and physical health. Not getting enough sleep each night is associated with an increase in injuries, hypertension, obesity and depression, especially for teens who may experience increased risk of self-harm or suicidal thoughts.”

Yet about 7 out of 10 high schoolers do not get enough sleep at night, according to a CDC study.

Other studies have linked poor sleep to a variety of physical and mental health struggles, as well as academic ones. In other words, whether or not you’re concerned about your kids’ overall tech use, you should be concerned about your teenagers’ sleep. And in today’s context, the two are typically linked.

What can we do?

Addressing teenagers’ sleep patterns and tech use can feel pretty overwhelming, especially for parents who may feel like they’ve already tried and failed. The good news is that a few tools—some of them relatively new—can boost our efforts to get kids sleeping again.

1. Relate first

Connect, then correct.

You’ve likely heard this parenting mantra along the way—especially when it comes to disciplining younger kids. This skill is all the more important in adolescence. So let’s build some empathy for our teenagers before we strike down their bad habits.

Did you ever stay up on the phone (maybe one with a cord, maybe one you had to drag down the hall to get some privacy) late into the night with a friend or romantic interest? Did you ever stay up too late watching television—maybe one in your bedroom? Did you ever lose track of time (then or now) because you got so absorbed in these or other pursuits (searching for answers to crazy questions, obsessing over a fan crush, playing a game that never seems to stop)? Probably. Access that place in your own life first. Then have this conversation.

Name the fears.

Yours and theirs. You’re concerned about their health. You worry about long-term consequences. You have suspicions about late-night content and conversations. You live by the mantra “nothing good happens after midnight.” These fears are mostly reasonable. Say them.

Then ask what they’re afraid of if they turn off their device, or turn it off too early. They’re afraid of being left behind in a conversation or a game. They want to keep connected to the people who are driving their sense of belonging right now—their friends. They don’t want to let someone else down or unintentionally offend them by not responding. They’re anxious about all they’re missing. Let them voice these fears. Withhold your judgment.

Of course, this conversation might not get much past, “I don’t know, Dad, it’s just what I want to do. Why is it such a big deal? It’s not a big deal to anyone else’s parents.” At least you’ve offered empathy. That counts.

2. Decide when and where screens go to bed

Set—and keep—a time when screens turn off at night.

This is much easier to start with younger kids, but it’s fair to roll back the screen bedtime with any kid who has dissolved these boundaries. Just like most of our healthy routines, creating consistency in our lives with digital technology helps us manage expectations and live within sustainable rhythms. Put it in the same context as showering and brushing teeth. This is regular preventive healthcare.

For preteens, middle schoolers, and any adolescent who struggles with falling asleep, set a screen bedtime 30-60 minutes prior to physical bedtime.

Pick a spot where tech sleeps—OUT of bedrooms.

Nearly 40 percent of teenagers in the Common Sense Media study said they’d be more likely to go to bed earlier if they didn’t keep their phone in their bedroom overnight. Whether it’s the kitchen, a hallway bookcase, or your bedroom (though this may be perilous for your own evenings), choose a nightly resting place for all the tech in the house. As an added bonus, put your own tech there, too. Show your kids that you don’t need to check your phone up to the minute you go to bed or the very first thing in the morning, since this can be an unhealthy practice for adults too.

Your teen may protest, “But how will I wake up?” Believe it or not, alarm clocks are still on the market, and are remarkably effective at this task. Invest in one as a gift.

3. Use built-in tools to reduce friction

Let the tech do half the work.

Half of the work of developing healthy tech rhythms at night is creating the boundaries. You can’t skip real conversations about this. And you’ll want to check in from time to time to be sure the boundaries are being enforced and feel workable to everyone.

But the other half can be automated. Tap into the power of:

  • Device settings. Most of today’s phones, tablets, and gaming systems come with built-in options for daily time limits and shut-offs, and many can be adjusted from app to app (for example, set a device limit for Snapchat to turn off at 10pm). Pro tip: turn on “Night shift” (or the comparable device setting) that lowers the blue light and increases warmer tones in order to avoid interference with melatonin levels at night. Set this for about an hour before you set device bedtime for a longer ramp-down.
  • Software/operating system settings. Similar to device settings, more and more developers are creating tools for families to manage screen time with savvy. For example, Apple Families and Google Family offer ways to manage kids’ screen use from your own mobile device through a family share system. Many wireless providers now offer their own packages as well.
  • Tracking and limiting apps. If managing family usage feels overwhelming or if you have teenagers who’ve had trouble keeping tech boundaries, you may want to use a tracking, filtering, and/or usage limiting app that adds as much surveillance and content control as you prefer. Just be sure to be clear with your kids that you’re using this. Few actions break trust with a teenager faster than snooping in their private spaces uninvited.

Utilizing these ready-made tools can cut your arguments about tech use in half because you aren’t the one actively reminding, prodding, or forcibly removing the device in anger. Even if that only reduces your tech conflict by half, it’s an improvement.

Go first.

Relational bonus: Use these built-in tools to set limits for yourself, too. The kids will notice.

4. Adjust for age

In my own house, these rhythms work differently for my sixth-grader, high school freshman, and senior. The youngest doesn’t have a phone yet, but has clear limits on gaming and computer screen access so his brain is winding down the hour before bedtime. In contrast, the oldest is preparing for adult life, and she needs to learn self-regulation around tech use, sleep, and all other aspects of life when parents aren’t on hand to direct. We have to approach these conversations differently—and from time to time have a do-over.

In our book Every Parent’s Guide to Navigating Our Digital World, we talk about three parenting phases with technology:

  • Architect: You’re the parent, they’re the kids. Help them build structures that last.
  • Mentor: You’re the guide, teaching skills and building character for adulthood.
  • Companion: You’re the co-traveler—using media together, building relationship.

We need to spend most of childhood and early adolescence in the architect mode, shift into mentoring somewhere mid-high-school, and be ready to transition toward companionship as kids prepare to transition into adulthood. While it’s dangerous to act only as a companion too soon, it’s equally dangerous to remain the controlling architect too long. Check in with other parents and with your older kids about whether some of your rules have outlived your kids’ prior phase into the current one.

These four practices may not magically solve sleep problems in your house, but hopefully implementing them can help you make progress. Be sure to utilize more of our resources from FYI to help you dig deeper into this journey of parenting in today’s digital world.

Parenting in a Digital World

Parenting in a Digital World Online Course

Parenting in a digital world can feel like parenting on a battlefield. The threats seem to be coming from all directions, and we don’t know the best ways to protect our families. In this course, Kara Powell and Brad Griffin give parents a clear view of the digital landscape and help them start conversations with their kids about healthy media usage.

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Brad M. Griffin Image
Brad M. Griffin

Brad M. Griffin is the Senior Director of Content & Research for the Fuller Youth Institute, where he develops research-based resources for youth ministry leaders & families. A speaker, writer, and volunteer pastor, Brad is the coauthor of over fifteen books, including Faith Beyond Youth Group, 3 Big Questions That Change Every Teenager & 3 Big Questions That Shape Your Future, Growing Young, and Sticky Faith. Brad and his wife, Missy, live in Southern California and share life with their three teenage and young adult kids.

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