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Originally published in Empowering Parents

I’m a psychologist married to a psychiatrist. Yes, I know how many of us it takes to screw in a light bulb . . . Between us, we treat people ages 2 to 92 and attempt to raise three of our own offspring. Ask us what we worry the most about with our clients (and offspring), and we’ll say sleep deprivation. Hands down, sleep deprivation is the most common and insidious threat to mental health in our practices.

With teens, we call staying up all night vamping, like a vampire but on screen media. And kids who stay up all night tend to sleep all day. Anybody who’s parented a teen during the summer knows this is a common state of being when a teen is left to their own devices. Then, when it’s time for school or other daytime activities it can be very difficult to reset a more reasonable sleep-wake schedule. I often see teens fall into anxious avoidance and depression as they try to make the switch.

Tips for How to Avoid the Slippery Slope of Vamping

NO SCREENS IN THE BEDROOM

Screens wake up our brains! Screen media stimulates the photosensors in the retina that signal the brain to suppress melatonin production (our sleep-regulating hormone). Less melatonin disrupts our natural circadian rhythms.

Pavlov & his dogScreens in the bedroom also train us to be awake in bed. If we are often awake in bed, our bodies will automatically believe that the bed is an awake-only zone. If we only rest and sleep in bed, our bodies will be cued that the bed is a sleep-only zone. Although it is a challenge to stop teens from living their full life cycle on their beds, this habit can create sleep problems with the principles of conditioned behavioral response (awake paired with bed and screen time is a hard conditioning to overcome).

Make the No Screens in the Bedroom Rule BEFORE it’s necessary. I know it’s asking a lot to say no TV, video games, tablets, or smartphones in the bedroom. But, believe me, intimate spaces eventually lead to intimate gestures like sexting and the viewing of inappropriate online content. Too late for you because you’ve already allowed it? Stage a discussion and go slow. Yanking their freedom abruptly may trigger a backlash that may damage your hard-earned parent-child connection. The best-case scenario is starting with this rule from the very beginning.

 

SCREENS OFF 30 MINUTES BEFORE LIGHTS OUT 

Psychologists have discovered that one of the most disabling features of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), an impairing anxiety disorder that results from trauma, is sleep deprivation that results from nightmares. While sleeping, the brain tends to prioritize and loop on frightening memories as it sorts through its memory cache for sorting and storage. As it loops, frightening content will appear in our dreams.

Just like the response to fright when we’re awake, stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline dump into our bloodstream when we have nightmares. If we are troubled upon falling asleep, poor sleep quality may result and we will be unable to awaken feeling refreshed or rejuvenated. This can seriously impair mental health.

Although emotionally triggering screen media activities like gaming, texting, or viewing activating content aren’t as troubling as real-life trauma, they still stimulate the same brain regions. Limiting activating screen media activities at night and giving your children time to soothe before bedtime will likely result in better quality sleep overall.

ENCOURAGE A SOOTHING NIGHTTIME RITUAL

We are creatures of habit. Habitual activity during the 30-minute bedtime wind-down signals the body to anticipate rest. Components of a soothing ritual may include soft lighting, quiet repetitive sounds, and comforting activities. Avoid eating, triggering discussions, and intense exercise. Sticking to a consistent bedtime schedule is also important.

STAGE THE ROOM TO BE RESTFUL 

I know it’s nearly impossible to motivate teens to unclutter their dens. However, research is clear that a soothing environment contributes to a soothed mind. Offer your support in creating a more grown-up environment with a fresh bedroom makeover that reflects rest and relaxation. Light paint colors, organized closets and bedside tables, subtle lighting, and crisp, cleansing smells can turn a chaotic hovel into a relaxing paradise.

TEACH SOPHISTICATED SELF-SOOTHING STRATEGIES

As a psychologist, I can attest by first-hand experience that cognitive-behavioral exercises like diaphragmatic breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, mindfulness, yoga, imagery, and cognitive restructuring can fend off even the most severe anxiety and mood disorders.

There’s preliminary evidence that screen media delays the onset of sleep, negatively affects sleep quality, and results in difficulty awakening and feeling refreshed. It also decreases REM (rapid eye movement) and sleep time.

Children and adolescents who use screen media at night go to bed later, get fewer hours of sleep, and report more daytime sleepiness. Sending texts or e-mails after initially going to bed increases daytime sleepiness among teens (even if it’s only once/week).

A full cycle of sleep takes 90 minutes. (A full cycle provides cognitive rejuvenation that improves procedural memory and creativity with no sleep inertia.) 10-20 minute power naps are shown to increase alertness and energy. 30 minutes will result in sleep inertia (grogginess). And 60 min is good for slow-wave sleep (helps remember facts but some grogginess).

I’m the mom psychologist who will help you GetYourKidsInternetSafe.

Onward to More Awesome Parenting,

Tracy S. Bennett, Ph.D.
Mom, Clinical Psychologist, CSUCI Adjunct Faculty
GetKidsInternetSafe.com

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