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Social media could be behind rise in child sleep disorders

It comes down to parents setting strict bedtime routines, according to experts

Rachel Hosie
Monday 01 October 2018 11:11 BST
(Getty Images)

Increasing numbers of children are suffering from sleep problems, and the rise is being attributed to use of social media and digital devices before bedtime, as well as childhood obesity and mental health problems.

The number of hospital admissions for young people with sleep disorders has risen sharply over the last six years, according to data from NHS Digital analysed by The Guardian.

Admissions with a primary diagnosis of sleep disorder amongst under-16s rose from 6,520 in 2012-13 to 9,429 last year.

The rise in sleep problems for children is in contrast to a slight fall in admissions across all ages, from 29,511 in 2012-13 to 29,184 in 2017-18.

But some experts believe we shouldn’t be demonising social media - rather we should be teaching parents to set boundaries for their children.

“We know that blue light from screens can interfere with sleep but really these problems are down to poor parenting, not social media,” digital detox expert and author of Stop Staring at Screens, Tanya Goodin, explains to The Independent.

“If children are staying up late at night on screens and social networks the blame must be laid at the door of parents, not the social media companies.”

Vicki Dawson, founder of the NHS Doncaster-funded the Children’s Sleep Charity, also stresses the importance of parents setting strict rules around bedtimes.

“We are increasingly seeing families where both parents are out working and this can mean that bedtime becomes later; bedtime routines may be rushed or abandoned altogether,” she said.

“A good sleep routine is key in supporting a better sleep pattern. Diet can play a role too. We see children and young people who are consuming a lot of sugar and even energy drinks to try to compensate for the sleep deprivation that they are experiencing. This then has an impact on night-time sleep.”

However it’s not just social media use that is being heralded as the cause of the increase - rising obesity levels and a crisis of mental health have also been cited as contributing factors.

Obesity contributes to sleep apnoea, which is the most common sleep disorder. If a person suffers from sleep apnoea, the walls of the throat relax and narrow during sleep, interrupting normal breathing. It is a problem that’s worsened when a person is overweight.

However, research also suggests that not sleeping enough can lead to weight gain, so the two factors are closely linked.

“We have two main epidemics among children. One is obesity and the other is mental health, and underpinning both of these is sleep,” said Michael Farquhar, a consultant in sleep medicine at the Evelina Children’s hospital, part of Guy’s and St Thomas’ NHS foundation trust.

“We always thought sleep was a consequence of obesity but there is an increasing understanding that sleeplessness contributes to obesity. When you are sleep-deprived, your body responds by altering the hormones that affect appetite and hunger … you crave unhealthy things when you are tired.”

Similarly, suffering from anxiety can lead to trouble sleeping, and being sleep deprived can contribute to anxiousness.

“Children need a consistent routine from early on… one that is consistent but not a straitjacket, there should be flexibility,” added Farquhar.

“Building in winding-down time at the end of the day, reducing smartphone use an hour before bedtime is important for better sleep.”

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