Lack Of Sleep Affecting Academic Ability – Is Technology To Blame?

kid playing an xboxHave you ever found yourself awake in bed much later than you planned because you just can’t bring yourself to turn off your phone, tablet or TV?

Even as an adult it can be difficult to resist the temptation of the latest game, TV episode or social media. So imagine how much harder it is for children to control themselves?

Researchers, teachers and parents alike have long been concerned that kids are using technology too much, and often too late in the night.

They worry about the impact on their school work, their health and their social lives. And as research seems to suggest, these worries aren’t without reason.

International study shows sleep deprivation is affecting school work

In 2013, the BBC news website reported a large international study which appears to back up these concerns.

Boston College carried out the important study which is used to compare international educational standards in more than 50 countries by analyzing the performance of over 900,00 school children.

But in this study for the first time they also collected data on other factors such as sleep and nutrition. They then compared the test results of the children with interviews of parents and teachers about the other factors.

They found a wide range of differences between countries in terms of how sleep deprived the children performed on average.

What the study showed

The study found that on average, richer countries had greater numbers of sleep deprived children. The United States had the largest percentage of sleep deprived children; 73% of 9 and 10 year olds, and 80% of 13 and 14 year olds.

When you compare this to the international average of 57% and 47% respectively, you can see a large difference.

The researchers at Boston College stated that increased sleep deprivation corresponded with worse results in the maths, reading and science tests.

The researchers then found that the problem seems to snowball when more children in a class are sleep-deprived.

They found that teachers felt the need to make classes easier so that the more sleep-deprived children could cope with the standard. So all the children would then receive an easier education.

While there were some exceptions to the idea of the richer countries being more sleep deprived, and also exceptions to the rule of more sleep deprived children doing worse in the tests, overall the correlation is strong.

The reason children perform worse academically when sleep deprived

Sleep is vital for the brain to function at full capacity. If children are tired, then important functions are affected which can affect their academic ability:

  • Concentration levels are lower
  • Memory is impacted – both the ability to form new memories, and the ability to recall information
  • Problem solving is affected – particularly solving difficult problems, as recent research also showed
  • The ability to comprehend new ideas and theories is reduced

So what is causing the sleep deprivation?

The researchers at Boston College do not state why children are so sleep deprived, particularly in the richer countries such as the United States.

But it is no secret what sleep specialists, doctors, teachers and parents think is a major factor. And children themselves will often admit to the reasons they are up late into the night.

Going back to the list of technological devices that children have at their fingertips, why exactly do they keep children up at night? Well, there are several possible reasons, and combination of reasons:

Just can’t stop

The simplest explanation is when children are either allowed free control over their ‘toys’, or when they still play with them when told not to. It can be really hard to stop yourself playing games, texting friends, checking Facebook etc.

Many grown adult have this problem, so why should we expect children to have any better level of self-control?

Add to that the fact that many children, especially teenagers, naturally have a body clock which goes to sleep and wakes up later. So the ability to stop when you are not feeling tired just because you know you should is lost on many children.

Addictive nature of some technology

world of warcraft gameModern computer games are incredible. And what’s more, many of them are designed in such a way that can make them very hard to put down.

Have you ever asked a child just how important it is to them that their character is just as high a level as their friends are? Or that they have an equal number of achievements or scores in a game?

I know because I have spent nearly 30 years playing computer games. I know that putting down PacMan was much easier than resisting getting my character to the next level on World of Warcraft. And even PacMan was at time hard to stop playing!

The 8 year old me got bored of that game much sooner than the older me used to do with Warcraft. Thankfully I beat that addiction by taking my own advice a while back!

The social life

People who don’t use technology struggle to understand how fulfilling a social life it brings some children and adults. Whether it is staying in touch on Facebook, chatting by text or other social media, or working together with new friends online to defeat the latest boss in a computer game.

Children need to feel secure in their social circle, that they have friends and are liked. So the feeling that they are missing out, or not being there for someone else, or not being cool can be a strong driver to stay up late at night.

The impact of light from screens

When children hold screens close to their face, the light can be intense enough to have a similar effect as sunlight. This can make your body and mind think it is daytime, and therefore not time to sleep.

This effect can even make it hard to fall asleep after they turn off the screen because the light has already sent the signals to the internal body clock that it is day time.

What can parents do about it?

The first thing is to lead by example and to develop a house-wide practice of having quiet, no technology time at the end of the night. If children see you using a laptop or watching TV in bed, then they are going to think it is normal.

It is a parental choice as to how strict to be with having technology in the bedroom and enforcing it. But the best advice would be to have a limit to the amount of time that can be spent on computer games especially.

Encourage children to do something relaxing in the last hour before bed. And by relaxing we don’t mean designing their avatar’s latest outfit online…

The Boston College researchers did state that the effect of sleep deprivation on study can be reversed. So the sooner you can get your kids back into a stable sleeping pattern, then sooner they can perform at their academic best again.

Other factors

Of course it may not always be technology to blame, and not entirely either. As parents, you need to be keeping an eye out for any other factors which can contribute to poor sleep in children.

Factors such as diet, exercise, stress and other health issues can all play a role to name just a few examples. So don’t be too hasty to pin the problem on computer games completely and ignore all the other factors which could contribute to poor sleep.

Yes technology may play a big role, but sleep is complex. And so are children.

Your thoughts

Are you a parent worrying about your child’s academic performance? Do you feel that technology is making it hard for them to focus on school work?

What do you do to try and reduce the effects, but still allow them to do what they enjoy doing?

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