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Toddlers using touchscreens might be prone to develop poor sleep patterns

A new study found that the more toddlers are using touchscreen devices, their chance of developing sleep problems grows.

Around three quarters of children in the UK aged six months to three years use a touchscreen device every day, as researchers at Birbeck, University of London and King’s College London concluded. Tim Smith, a psychology lecturer who carried out the study, thinks that, since light emitted by electronic screens has been shown to lower melatonin (the sleep-regulating hormone) levels in adults, the same process might affect children as well.

“The devices are in the parents’ pockets all the time. The children learn this is a thing of interest, and then they themselves get interested in the device,” Smith told the Independent.

“Parents are wondering what the potential impact might be on their children, but the technology is such a recent introduction into family life that the science isn’t really there to inform parents, or give them guidelines on how they should be using them.”

“We didn’t have a daily diary in the study, so we didn’t know exactly when the children are using the devices, but the total time they used the device during the day was associated with these sleep differences.”

For the study, Dr Smith and his colleagues sent an online survey to 715 parents regarding their child’s daily touchscreen use and their sleep patterns. They observed that for each extra hour spent with a touch-activated screen, the children lost around 16 minutes of sleep.

“The wavelengths of light is not what they’re usually getting at twilight or night time, so that could be suppressing melatonin that’s necessary for sleep. It could just be the general level of distraction and stimulation children are getting,” Tim Smith said.

“But it could be to do with the families. The screen may not be causing this problem at all, but the increased use of the screen could be symptomatic of something else about the child, such as hyperactivity.

“We’ve tried our best to control for those differences, but there could be less strict bedtimes, more irregular parenting and more media use in general [among families with more touchscreen use].”

Almost 50% of babies aged six to 11 months use a touchscreen daily. The rate grows up to 92% among two year old kids. There are some academic who question the validity of the study. Statistics expert Kevin McConway said that those who choose to respond to online surveys are “hardly typical of UK families.”

Professor Conway explained: “Of the mothers involved, a huge 45 per cent had a postgraduate qualification, and in all 86 per cent had a university-level qualification. In the 2011 census, only about a third of women of child-bearing age in England and Wales had a university qualification,” said Professor McConway.

“We aren’t given much more information about the families in the survey, but if they are so untypical in this way, they could be untypical in other ways too. In particular, would parents who choose to respond to a survey about touchscreen use be typical in terms of their young children’s touchscreen use? We just can’t tell.”

John