Watching violent content on television and watching any TV after 7 PM has been linked to children’s sleep problems. The study was released today online in the journal Pediatrics and its findings underscore the importance of time away from the screen as a helpful ally in overall childhood mental and physical health.
Children 3 to 5 who watched violent content on TV during the daytime experienced increased sleep problems – getting to sleep on time, staying asleep, nightmares, and daytime tiredness. It did not matter whether the content was animated or live-action – it appears to have the same effect. Additionally, researchers also found that watching any television after 7 PM was likely to disrupt sleep as well.
Kids with TVs in their rooms watched more TV and were more likely to have sleep problems. For instance, about 8 percent of kids with a bedroom TV were tired during the day, compared with 1 percent of kids without a bedroom TV. Since the findings are based on parents' reports of their child's TV watching, it's likely the parents underestimated how much time their kids' watched TV and how much violent TV they watched, the researchers said.
While some researchers speculate that the disturbances seen in young children are due to the children’s inability to clearly distinguish between reality and make-believe, I would suggest that we underestimate the stimulating power of electronic media. Preschoolers do, in fact, understand make-believe worlds, as child development expert Alison Gopnik has demonstrated. The real issue lies with the physiological and psychological arousal that follows in the wake of screen viewing, particularly of programming that is designed to be “exciting.” And many, many children’s programs are designed to be exciting – in order to keep them hooked.
The phenomenon is not much different from adults watching thrillers, or action-adventures, or suspense films. Although we are perfectly clear about the fact that these stories are make-believe, and we possess our adult self-soothing coping skills, a late-night viewing of Psycho is bound to disrupt our peace – and our sleep – that night.
So what is OK to watch for preschoolers? For starters, limit screen time as much as possible. Besides disturbing sleep, TV time is being linked to poor eating habits, as well as disturbing the natural rhythms of wakefulness. And do not be too complacent about the fact that your young child is watching children’s programming: most of the violent content the children watched was actually children programming, said study researcher Michelle Garrison, of Seattle Children's Hospital.
Garrison recommends using the TV Parental Guidelines ratings as a proxy for the amount of violence in the program. "The majority of TV programming rated TV-Y will have minimal if any violence, whereas we do see significant violent content in programming rated for older children," including TV-Y7 or TV-PG, Garrison said.