Experts warn mobile devices affecting child development

New research has found that the use of smartphones and tablets is causing sleep deprivation among toddlers

Experts warn mobile devices affecting child development

File photo. Image: Peter Byrne/PA Wire/PA Images

Experts have warned that children’s increasing use of mobile electronic devices is leaving them at risk of permanent damage.

New research in the UK has found that the use of smartphones and tablets is causing significant sleep problems among babies and toddlers.

The study, published in Scientific Reports, has linked every hour spent using a touchscreen device to 15 minutes less sleep.

Undertaken at the University of London, the research questioned 715 parents of children under three years old.

It asked how often their child played with a smartphone or tablet and about the child's sleep patterns.

The report found that 75% of the toddlers use a touchscreen every day. 

The researchers warned that neural plasticity – the brain's ability to form new neural connections – is at its greatest during infancy and toddlerhood, adding that sleep deprivation is likely to have the most impact during this critical period of development. 

Paediatric sleep consultant Lucy Wolfe told Newstalk that studies are consistently finding that overuse of electronic devices is having a negative impact on children’s sleep patterns.

“Television specifically has this false restoring quality and some of the programmes that children watch have almost a trance-like effect,” she said.

“It brings them in to a level of calm that maybe you never see your child having - and then they regroup and what happens is the production of melatonin that is necessary for sleep is being compromised.

“Sometimes it is being stopped completely and it can’t remerge for another couple of hours and so that of course is having such a negative impact on our children’s sleep.”

Technology addiction

In the US meanwhile, children as young as 13-years-old are reportedly checking in to rehab in order to break their addiction to mobile devices.

The reSTART Life Centre near Seattle is the first of its kind in the western world.

The centre helps youngsters deal with addiction to digital technology including video games.

Its founder Dr Hilarie Cash advises people of all ages to restrict their use of devices to certain scheduled times - and has warned families to confront their worries about the increasing influence of technology over their daily lives.

"When you start handing these devices to young children and they're distracted by the movement, the colour and sound coming from this device, that is mesmerising enough that it will override all those natural instincts that children actually have for movement and exploration and social interaction," she said.

"I think it is really important to come together as a family and talk about tech and how much is good, how much is ok and when does it start to interfere with family relationships, with responsibilities, with sleep, and many other things."

Setting limits 

Ms Wolfe - who has authored 'The Baby Sleep Solution' on methods to help children sleep through the night - is advising parents to ban the use of TV and electronics – at least in the hour before bedtime – and to minimise usage throughout the day.

She said the problem also extends to older children – adding that setting limits is extremely important when it comes to gadgets and computer games.

“Teenagers specifically - they are a very vulnerable group - they are not coming off their gadgets,” she said.

“It is not self directed; they will stay on all night if they are allowed to and then of course they are not getting enough sleep and the sleep they are actually getting is not the deep restoring quality that they need.”

The research does not call for children to be blocked using devices entirely – as toddlers that play with touchscreens can potentially develop their fine motor skills at a quicker rate.