Mental Health & Well-being, Technology

Circadian Rhythms: Screens and Kids

Circadian Rhythms: Screens and Kids

Originally published in TEACH Magazine, Digital Citizenship Special Issue, 2020

By Chris Leavens

Technology provides us with some wonderful learning opportunities in our classrooms. Personally, I cannot imagine teaching without it. Over the last several years, my students and I have experienced many learning adventures along the digital frontier.

As a class, we’ve Skyped with a group of students in South Korea on our laptops. We’ve recorded and edited movie trailers for Romeo and Juliet with our smartphones. We’ve collaboratively published multimedia presentations on the symbolism that exists in The Outsiders using cloud-based technology. We’ve also been the benefactors of a virtual tour of the Sistine Chapel. There seems to be no limit to teaching with technology.

In spite of the many benefits of technology, however, we do not talk enough about how it harms the sleep patterns of our students.

I see sleepy kids every day in my 8th grade English class. Their heads are drooping. Their eyes are barely open. Their energy is low. They ask, “Can we please turn the lights off?” or “Can we sleep?” Many of them are clearly exhausted.

Lack of sleep is devastating to a child’s ability to learn. They come to school unfocused and struggle just to pay attention. The National Sleep Foundation determined that a good night’s sleep not only enhances one’s attention span, but it improves their ability to learn and remember information. In addition to the academic benefits of sleeping, children who get 8-10 hours of sleep exhibit greater empathy and happiness. Sleep-deprived kids tend toward depression and anxiety.

As a teacher, I check in with my kids daily by asking, “What time did you go to bed last night?” I hear a variety of responses. Typically, bedtimes fall between 9-10pm. However, after children are in bed, many of them continue to use their smartphones and tablets. Sometimes they’re watching videos. Sometimes they’re playing games. Frequently, they’re messaging their friends.

What is wrong with smartphones and tablets kids often wonder? They do a lot of good. They have about a million times more power than the computer that took the Apollo 11 shuttle to the moon! Smartphones and tablets emit blue LEDs (light-emitting diodes) affecting sleep.

In 2014, three Japanese scientists won the Nobel Prize in physics for their work on blue LEDs. Their work has led to providing more energy-efficient sources of light and power. Although blue LEDs have incredible benefits in the fields of energy and technology, they also have harmful side effects on our sleeping habits.

Blue LEDs may significantly suppress melatonin. Melatonin is the hormone that induces sleep. A study by Harvard looked at the impact of blue LED light on sleep. The study determined that blue LED light can delay sleep as much as three hours depending on the amount of exposure.

In addition to screens, teenagers already have a difficult time sleeping. Their circadian rhythm is often delayed. This pattern makes them more active and energized than most adults. The shift in rhythm also makes it more difficult for teens to fall asleep at a reasonable time.

Between the sleep-suppressing impact of smartphones and tablets and the delayed shift in the circadian rhythm, it is no surprise that our teenage students are struggling to stay awake. Additionally, some students live in home environments that make it difficult for them to get a good night’s sleep.

As teachers and school leaders, what are we to do? We can’t assign a bedtime for homework. We also can’t require our students to turn in their phones before bed as if they’re on a field trip. We’re not their parents. We’re their teachers.

What we can do is control our own classrooms and educate our school community. I have a policy in my classroom called, If You Need to Sleep, Then Sleep. (I know, not very original.) I have extra pillows and blankets that the students can use to take a 15-20-minute nap at their desks.

I have high standards in my classroom for performance and participation. When students come to class, they must be ready to learn. Once I see that students understand and respect this, then I introduce the nap policy. I would much rather have students quickly nap, recharge, and be prepared to learn than struggle through my class and the remainder of the day.

The National Sleep Foundation says that a 20-minute nap is the ideal length of time. It improves alertness, memory, creativity, and decreases levels of stress. Teachers can allow, and should even encourage, naps to be taken to help students’ academic and mental health. The work that is missed can be made up later.

Some teachers disagree with this idea. They argue that this is lowering the bar, that the students will nap all the time and miss valuable classroom activities. In my experience, I have not found this to be true. Rather, this raises the bar. Students know that when they come into my class they need to be attentive, participative, and active. But if they need to take a nap, then it shows that they’re not ready. So often, they strive to be at their best and not need to nap.

Sleep deprivation is not an issue that a single teacher with extra pillows and blankets can handle on their own. Parents and administrators have a large role to play. Teachers can address the issue in parent-teacher conferences and on Back-to-School Night. Many parents that I meet are unaware of the amount of sleep their child is getting and the adverse impact that smartphones and tablets have on their sleep patterns.

Who can blame them? Smartphones did not even exist when I was growing up in the ’90s and 2000s. Technology advances so quickly that it is difficult for anyone to keep up. Collaboration and conversation need to exist between parents and school communities on best practices with technology bearing in mind the best interests of the child.

As a part of those conversations, school district leaders and administrators need to open discussions about the possibility of delaying middle and high school start times. If we want to maximize the learning experience of our students, schools could move their times back. I know that this might be akin to moving mountains, however, if we truly prioritize our children’s education and well-being, school boards should begin to have those conversations.

We need, however, to balance the role of technology in our lives as it continues to change. Back in 1997, Netscape was the premier Internet browser. In 2002, Blockbuster was the preferred movie rental choice. In 2005, Myspace was acquiring 2 million new members per month. If you do not know or remember them, therein lies my point. Technology will always be an integral part of our society. It will change, be reinvented, and evolve, but we cannot forget the power that will always come from a good night’s sleep.

Chris Leavens has taught middle school English for nine years. Currently, he is teaching 8th grade English in Englewood, Colorado. He has also taught in Baltimore, MD and Santiago, Chile.