TV and Sleep
June 29, 2004

Too much TV during the day could mean too little sleep for kids, according to a new study.

Glued to the Tube
Does stationing themselves in front of the television for hours during the day affect children's ability to sleep?

"Sleep experts have known for quite some time that staying up late and watching a lot of TV is one of the ways that people can have trouble falling asleep," says Jeffrey Johnson, professor of psychiatry at Columbia University and research scientist at the New York State Psychiatric Institute.

Now, the first long-term study on the association between television viewing and sleep reveals a relationship between extensive TV watching and the development early adulthood sleep problems. Starting in 1975, Johnson's colleagues analyzed data about TV viewing habits from 759 parents and children. Television viewing was put into three categories: less than an hour per day, one to three hours per day, and three or more hours per day. When the study began, the children were six years old; some randomly selected children from the group were interviewed about their viewing habits at ages 14, 16, and 22 years (their mothers were interviewed separately). If parent and child had differing answers, the higher of the two answers was used.

Johnson, whose research was published in Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, found that heavy TV viewing was associated with difficulty falling asleep, and waking up in the middle of the night and having trouble getting back to sleep. "Individuals who watched three or more hours of TV per day were about twice as likely as those who watched less than one hour of TV per day to have those two different kinds of sleep difficulties by the time they were young adults," he says.

Johnson also found that sleep problems were more common at age 14 than at age 16 and 22, and 14-year-olds who reduced their TV viewing time were less likely to develop sleep problems later than those who did not. Other research has revealed that the teen years are indeed a time when sleep is especially necessary. Jean Rhodes, professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts at Boston, studied sleep in nearly 2,500 Chicago school children, aged 11 to 14-years-old, and published the results in the journal Child Development. She found that a lack of sleep affects performance in school.

"Middle school marks the onset of puberty, and we do know that that coincides with a greater need for sleep than even children who are in elementary school or even younger children," says Rhodes. "The recommended amount of sleep for middle school students is around nine hours, and on average, they're getting far less than that. The fewer hours of sleep that children got the more depressed they were the higher number of depressive symptoms and the lower their self esteem, and the lower their grades.”

Johnson posits that lack of sleep affects brain function. "A lot of our most advanced cognitive or mental functions begin to decline if we don't get enough sleep at night," says Johnson. "So things like creativity, memory [and] concentration are affected. Mood as well is affected, so some of the things we are most likely to see if young people are not getting enough sleep is that they would be grouchy and irritable in the morning, they would have trouble paying attention in class, especially in the morning or at the end of the day."

Johnson recommends that kids should exercise and do homework instead of spending time in front of the tube. The American Academy of Pediatrics says that children should view no more than one to two hours per day of television.

Johnson's research appeared in the June, 2004 issue of Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine and was funded by the National Institutes of Health. Rhodes' study appeared in the January/February issue of the journal Child Development and was funded by the Carnegie Foundation and the Spencer Foundation.