Kids have always wanted to stay up late. But Caffeine and tech toys now keep them up even later -- and it's hurting their health. Here's what you can do. / C.J. Burton/USA WEEKEND
Where’s the caffeine?
Coffee, 8 ounces: 100 to 200 mg caffeine
Mountain Dew, 12 ounces: 54 mg
Lipton Pureleaf Iced Tea, 16 ounces; 62 mg
Starbucks Frappuccino, 16 ounces; 95 mg
Jolt, 12 ounces; 140 mg
Red Bull, 8.3 ounces: 76 mg
Full Throttle, 16 ounces: 144 mg
Monster Energy, 16 ounces: 160 mg
Huddled under the covers long after lights out, a 13-year-old is busily texting back and forth with her best friend.
A 16-year-old video game fanatic spends hours every night playing Mortal Kombat.
A high school sophomore obsessively checks Facebook to see who commented on her latest status update.
If you’re the parent of a teen, you’re probably all too familiar with the warm glow of some sort of electronic device illuminating a corner of your teenager’s bedroom late into the night.
“When we were kids, it was a big deal to have a TV in your bedroom,” says Christina Calamaro, an assistant professor and pediatric nurse practitioner at the University of Maryland who studies sleep in children. “But today, we have a society of children whose whole existence is so technology-oriented. And all of this is disturbing their sleep.”
To be sure, there’s nothing particularly new or unusual about teenagers not getting enough sleep. Research shows that once kids hit their teen years, their body clocks naturally shift later so that they’re not sleepy until 11 or 12, and then they want to sleep in. That, combined with early school start times, already sets kids up to skimp on sleep.
What’s different today, experts say, is the plethora of technological gadgets that are keeping them up even later. A 2010 Kaiser Family Foundation study revealed that American children ages 8 to 18 spend an average of 6½ hours a day using some kind of electronic device, whether it be a cellphone, computer, MP3 player or television. Oftentimes, they’re using more than one medium at a time, what experts call “media multitasking.”
Recent studies show that this technology overload, combined with the growing popularity of caffeine-laden energy drinks, is having serious consequences on children’s sleep habits.
In a 2009 study published in Pediatrics, Calamaro and her colleagues reported that only 21% of teens got at least eight hours of sleep during school nights, and one-third reported falling asleep at least twice a day. Most of the kids said they used at least one form of technology in their bedrooms before going to bed, and many used two or three at the same time.
In addition, more than 70% of the teens consumed at least 100 mg of caffeine a day (the amount found in one single espresso), often in energy drinks such as Red Bull. Not surprisingly, the more caffeine they drank and the more multitasking the teens did, the less sleep they got.
The consequences of sleep deprivation, however, are a lot more serious than your teenager nodding off in homeroom. In fact, some researchers speculate that the problem may make teenagers more vulnerable to chronic health conditions later in life, such as diabetes, high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease.
And the problem is starting to trickle down to younger children, says Jodi A. Mindell, associate director of the Sleep Center at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. “We know that caffeine use is rampant across all age groups, and an incredibly high percentage of 3- to 5-year-olds have TVs in their bedrooms,” she says.
Here’s what parents can do:
Make the bedroom a technology- free zone.
It may sound draconian, but sleep experts say that keeping the television, computer and any other electronic device out of your child’s bedroom is central to making sleep a priority.
“Every single study that’s been done shows that television viewing at night leads to sleep disturbances and shorter sleep times, and today the problem is just compounded by all of the different kinds of technology that are available,” Mindell says.
The problem with technology is twofold. First, the bright artificial light that computers and other devices emit suppresses melatonin, a hormone that tells our bodies it’s time to sleep.
But equally important is how engaging and compelling all these gadgets can be. “You want to answer one more e-mail, or check Facebook again, or play one more round of a video game, and it can be very hard to step away from that,” Mindell says.
If your teen needs to do homework on the computer, set up a place in your house other than in a bedroom. “We’ve allowed this thinking to become the pervasive viewpoint that it’s OK, and it’s actually required for children to have technology in the bedroom,” Calamaro says. “But the reality is that the bedroom should be reserved for sleep.”
Cut the caffeine after noon.
Even if your teen can’t stand the taste of hot coffee, that doesn’t mean he or she isn’t drinking caffeine regularly. Between caffeinated energy drinks such as Monster and Jolt, colas and other sodas, iced teas, and slushy coffee drinks at Starbucks, caffeine shows up in all kinds of beverages that teens drink regularly.
If your teenager drinks caffeinated beverages, set a cutoff time of noon. “This gives his body enough time to metabolize the caffeine so that by bedtime, sleep will hopefully not be affected,” advises Calamaro.
Encourage good sleep "hygiene."
A consistent bedtime routine is just as important for older kids as it for babies and toddlers, experts say. The hour before bedtime should be reserved for a quiet relaxing activity to help your child wind down. “Reading is a good bedtime activity, but you don’t want it to be something that’s too engrossing or stimulating,” says Shelby Harris, director of the Behavioral Sleep Medicine Program at Montefiore Medical Center in New York City. “Magazines are better than thrillers.”
Set a rule that all computers, phones and other devices are turned off at least an hour before bedtime. Have your teen save homework that doesn’t require a computer for right before lights out.
Try to set lights out for no later than 10 or 10:30 p.m. One recent study revealed that teens whose parents allowed them to stay up till midnight or later were 25% more likely to suffer from depression compared with adolescents whose parents set bedtimes of 10 p.m. or earlier.
Be a good role model.
It’s not enough to set rules for your children about sleep and technology, experts say. Parents need to follow them, too.
“Parents can’t say, ‘Johnny, turn the TV off in your room, it’s 11 p.m.,’ and then go in their bedroom and turn their TV on,” Calamaro says. “In order to model healthy behavior, parents really need to establish good sleep rules for the whole family and stick with them.”