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New Research: Smartphones and Your Sleepless Children

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Optimal Health is about more than reaching a healthy weight. Your health is woven throughout your daily life and is connected to every decision that you make. You could be eating the right foods and exercising regularly, but a toxic work environment for example could lead you to emotional eating. Likewise, an unhealthy lifestyle outside of the office could result in performance drops at work.

The Habits of Health are founded on the idea that we can harvest the power of these ripples and reprogram our habits to work for us, so that we can live rich, healthy lives. As medical research grows, we learn more and more about what habits work in our favor and what habits we should revisit, which is why we spend many of these blog posts exploring the implications of new research findings.

In a recent study published in the journal of Pediatrics, researchers found that children—fourth and seventh graders in the case of the study—who sleep with phones or other mobile devices sleep less during the week compared to children who do not keep devices in their rooms. Not surprisingly, experts warn that compromised sleep in children could affect their ability to learn as well as their psychological well-being. Their ability to fend off disease and to overcome the temptation for risky behaviors like smoking and drinking may be weakened as well.

Regular readers will recall that I have written about sleep extensively before. Sleep is truly one of the cornerstones of optimal health, but its importance is too often underestimated. Children are tempted by messages and games to stay awake long into the night, and adults often succumb to the same temptation with the added challenge of late-night work emails or other sources of stress.

When it comes to screens, we know that bright light—like that from a smartphone—can confuse your body’s internal rhythm. Our ancestors matched their internal clocks to the natural cycle of the sun. When the light appeared, they woke up. When the light went away, they went to sleep. Our bodies continue to follow the same rhythm, but bright lights can trigger our stay-awake routines when we should actually be falling asleep.

If you find yourself tossing and turning at night, too distracted by ideas and to-dos to sleep, your smartphone could be to blame.

Confirming through research that children are just as vulnerable to having their sleep interrupted can help us to fend off a Habit of Disease before it has the chance to form. As you may have thought about before, our children are growing up in a very different world than the one we grew up in. Smartphones are still relatively new, making our kids the first generation to grow up completely connected. If a few years of having smartphones on our nightstands has had a noticeable effect on our health as adults, what could a lifetime of staying up late to check messages do to an individual’s health?

We don’t have a definitive answer yet, but we can extrapolate based on the current research. So far, we know that children who keep their smartphones nearby at night are at risk of the above-listed consequences, but we also know that sleep is an important part of appetite regulation, memory, and a host of other restorative processes.

Sleep is important for everyone, so I put together some tips that you can use to help your children forge lifelong healthy habits of sleep, which will help you in the process.

1. Lead by example. Practicing what you preach will give your children a model to follow for their own Habits of Health.

2. No phones in the bedroom. And that means you too. Charge your devices downstairs and resolve to put them down at least 30 minutes before bed.

3. Read together. If your children are young enough, spend your time before sleep sharing bedtime stories. As your children get older, you can transition this ritual into each member of your family reading their books of choice together.

4. Dim the lights. Bright lights from cellphone screens can affect your sleep, but so can any other bright lights. If you are going to be up and about before bed, try to avoid flipping on anything exceptionally startling.

Remember, our Habits of Health are strongly influenced by the people around us, and as parents, our own behaviors help to set the tone for our children’s environment. If we can foster Habits of Health in our children while they are young, you can set them up for a lifetime of Optimal Health.

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