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Surveys demonstrate that sleep deprivation is rampant. Without sleep, we are at high risk for mental illness and overall performance decline. We all know it, yet we all do it. On-demand screen content is so tempting, especially during those precious moments where we have just settled in without interruptions and distractions. Today’s GKIS article goes over the reasons why sleep is so important and how to preserve your mental health and learning capacity by protecting much-needed restorative sleep.

Why is sleep so important?

During sleep our brains conduct general housekeeping and memory strengthening duties. Housekeeping tasks necessary for neurological health include the pruning, repair, and regeneration of neurons and the removal of toxins. Memory strengthening, called memory consolidation, occurs by stabilizing memory traces that were acquired while awake. Memory consolidation occurs with both declarative (fact-based) and procedural (how-to) information. Rapid-eye-movement (REM) sleep is particularly important for stabilizing complex or emotionally charged memories.[i]

When we don’t get enough sleep, our brain’s housekeeping and memory consolidation tasks remain undone, leaving us unable to efficiently acquire or retrieve information. Sleep deprivation not only stunts learning, it can also cause mood volatility, negative mood states like depression, irritability, and anxiety; fatigue, confusion, attention problems, motor impairment, and overall impaired cognitive performance.[ii] Furthermore, sleep-deprived individuals often fail to recognize impairment. In other words, they don’t realize the costs and keep burning the candle at both ends.


Missing out on much-needed sleep and staying up all night on screens is called vamping. Teens with chronic sleep deprivation demonstrate lower achievement motivation, more teacher-child relationship problems, a poorer academic self-concept, and poorer school performance.[iii] The digital age has contributed to chronic and pervasive sleep deprivation, one of the most common and insidious threats to mental health.

How might parents decrease the risk of vamping and encourage healthy sleep?

Stage the room to be restful.

I know it’s nearly impossible to motivate kids to unclutter their rooms. But a soothing environment contributes to a soothed mind. Offer your support by helping your child create a more restful environment with a fresh bedroom makeover. Light paint colors, soft textures, organized closets and bedside tables, soft lighting, white noise makers, and yummy smells can turn a chaotic hovel into a relaxing paradise.

Recognize that nutrition, exercise, and screen content impacts the quality of sleep.

Research has demonstrated that young children who watch violent television content have more sleep problems, particularly delayed onset of sleep, than children who view age-appropriate content.[iv] Furthermore, kids who get adequate nutrition and exercise, especially outdoor exercise because of sunlight setting your circadian rhythm, also get better quality sleep. In practice, I find that teens, in particular, benefit from the mood benefits of regular cardio and cooperative team play.

No screens in the bedroom.

Why? Because screens wake up our brain! The blue LED light from the screen stimulates the photosensors in the retina that signal the brain to suppress melatonin production (our sleep-regulating hormone) and makes us more alert. Less melatonin disrupts our natural circadian rhythms, which can lead to sleep during the day and wakefulness during the night. Using screens before bedtime has been found to cause people to go to bed later, prolong the time it takes to fall asleep, delays the timing of REM sleep, reduces the amount of REM sleep and sleep overall, reduces alertness in the morning, and causes more daytime sleepiness.[v] Use alarm clocks with red-lighted numbers in bedrooms rather than screens for timekeeping.

Screens also condition us to be awake in bed. If we are often awake in bed, our bodies will automatically be conditioned to cue, or believe that the bed is an “awake-only” zone. Alternatively, if we only rest and sleep in the bed, our bodies will be cued that bed is a “sleep-only” zone. In psychology, we call this type of cued learning classical conditioning. By these principals, we must resist the urge to do anything in bed but sleep to develop good expectations and habits. Make the No Screens in the Bedroom Rule BEFORE it’s necessary. It’s asking a lot to say no TV, video games, tablets, or smartphones in the bedroom, but vamping leads to sleep deprivation. Sleep deprivation leads to impulsivity and risk-taking.[vi] Impulsivity while in intimate spaces leads to intimate gestures like sexting and viewing inappropriate online content.

Encourage a soothing nighttime ritual.

We are creatures of habit. Habitual activity during the thirty-minute bedtime wind-down signals the body to anticipate rest. Components of a soothing ritual may include soft lighting; quiet, repetitive, or white noise sounds; and comforting activities. Sticking to a consistent bedtime schedule is also important.

Screens off thirty minutes before lights out.

As our brains sort through our memory caches, information is prioritized to either forget or remember. Because experiences that trigger emotion are typically important, evolution has shaped our brains to prioritize memories infused with emotion. Based on cognitive science theories, looping on a troubling experience is thought to be the cause of nightmares.

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, agitated dreaming and tossing and turning may result, leaving us tired, irritable, and cognitively scrambled the next day. Over time, this can seriously impair mental health.

Although emotionally triggering and arousing screen activities like gaming, texting, or viewing activating content isn’t as troubling as real-life trauma, they still stimulate the same brain regions activated with chronic stress, often for hours at a time. The hangover from chronic stress has been referred to as mental brownout. Limiting activating screen activities at night and giving your children time to soothe prior to bedtime will result in better quality sleep overall and pave the way for healthy learning during the day. Particularly avoid eating, triggering discussions, video gaming, and intense exercise before bed.

Teach sophisticated self-soothing strategies.

The opportunity to spend time with a relaxed parent is another factor critical to self-soothing. From birth, a child’s brain synchronizes with a responsive parent. Eye contact, narrative moment-to-moment comments with emotion words, and general conversation teach kids what emotions are and how to deal with them. We cannot provide this kind of synching and teaching if we are focused on screens instead of each other. Also, if you don’t sleep well one night, don’t stress about it. Getting anxious or angry will wake you up more, and most of us get poor sleep here and there and simply make it up later.

Cognitive-behavioral exercises like diaphragmatic breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, mindfulness, imagery, and meditation can fend off even the most persistent sleep disorders. Exercising one’s mind to relax is critical to self-soothing. Another option for overcoming some of the negative effects of sleep deprivation is napping. A full cycle of sleep takes about ninety minutes and provides the cognitive rejuvenation that improves procedural memory and creativity with no sleep inertia (grogginess). Sixty to thirty minutes is good for slow-wave sleep, which helps with fact memory and retrieval, but may still result in grogginess. Twenty to ten-minute power naps are shown to increase alertness and energy. If you have time to nap, it’s best to spend ninety minutes to complete a sleep cycle or just a power nap for ten.

If you found this article informative and want to learn more about how to teach healthy screen use to your kids, check out our newest course, Social Media Readiness Training for Tweens and Teens.

Onward to More Awesome Parenting, 

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

Works Cited

[i] Xie, L., Kang, H., Xu, Q., Chen, M., Liao, Y., Thiyagarajan, M., O’Donnell, J., Christensen, D., Nicholson, C., Iliff, J., Takano, T., Deane, R., &

Nedergaard, M. (2013). Sleep Drives Metabolite Clearance from the Adult Brain. Science 342.6156: 373-77. Web.

[ii] Goel, N., Rao, H., Durmer, J., & Dinges, D. (2009). Neurocognitive Consequences of Sleep Deprivation. Seminars in Neurology 29.04: 320-39. Web.

[iii] Dewald-Kaufmann, J., Oort, F., Bogels, S., & Meijer, A. (2013). “Why Sleep Matters: Differences in Daytime Functioning Between Adolescents with Low & High Chronic Sleep Reduction & Short & Long Sleep Durations.” Journal of Cognitive & Behavioral Psychotherapies, 13, 171-182.

[iv] Garrison, M. & Christakis, D. (2012). The impact of a healthy media use intervention on sleep in preschool children. Pediatrics, 2011-3153; DOI: 10.1542/peds.2011-3153

[v] Chang, A., Aeschbach, D, Duffy, J., & Czeisler, C. (2014). Evening Use of Light-emitting EReaders Negatively Affects Sleep, Circadian Timing, & Next-morning Alertness. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 112.4: 1232-237. Web.

[vi] Killgore, W., Kamimori, G., & Balkin, T. Caffeine Protects Against Increased Risk-taking Propensity During Severe Sleep Deprivation. Journal of Sleep Research 20.3 (2010): 395-403. Web.

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