In the days before a flick of a switch bathed us in light, people slept an average of 10 hours a night. Now Americans average 6.9 hours of weeknight sleep and 7.5 hours a night on weekends.
Sleep disorders affect 20 to 25 percent of children and adolescents, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, impacting their daily functioning, ability to concentrate, causing irritation and irritability.
“Probably the most common juvenile disorder since the invention of the light bulb is sleep deprivation,” says Kevin Fagan, M.D., a neurologist at Ingalls Memorial Hospital. “Babies sleep up to 21 hours a day. That gradually decreases, then in the teen years the need for sleep actually increases.”
Many of us are so used to functioning on less than an adequate amount of sleep, we don’t even necessarily feel sleepy. But that doesn’t mean we’re not sleep impaired and the consequences can be severe.
“The number of teenagers who are sleep deprived and having car accidents is up there,” says Fagan mentioning that teens changing times for going to bed and getting up impact their circadian rhythm also impacting restful sleep. “And it’s worse in terms of increasing the chances for accident when alcohol is involved.”
In article in the April 27, 2013 issue of the New York Times titled Diagnosing the Wrong Deficit, Vatsal G. Thakkar, a clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at the N.Y.U. School of Medicine, notes that today’s youngsters sleep more than an hour less than they did a hundred years ago interrupting the much needed delta sleep, a deep and rejuvenating sleep needed for proper growth and development.
Both Fagan and Thakkar tie our sleep-restricting environments have been crazier in the decades since 1990 as possibly being tied to the increase in the diagnosis of Attention Deficit Disorder.
“There are a lot of kids who behave like A.D.D.,” says Fagan, “who actually have sleep apnea or other sleep disorders. It’s kind of scary how many people who may have a sleep disorder are on stimulus drugs to treat A.D.D.”
There’s another possible component to the inability to sleep. In the February 1, 2013 issue of Scientific American, Stephani Sutherland notes that using a tablet like an iPad or computer in the late evening disrupts the body's melatonin production.
She cites a study done by Mariana Figueiro of the Lighting Research Center at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and her team showing that two hours of iPad use at maximum brightness was enough to suppress people's normal nighttime release of melatonin, a key hormone that tells your body that it is night, helping to make you sleepy. Delaying that signal could result in delayed sleep.
“When I was little there was a lot less technology,” says Mignon Kennedy, a licensed social worker and executive director at Gabriel’s Horn, a short term homeless shelter for women and children in Porter County. “I find all the electronic gadgets we have as so distracting. I do think there should be a time for that but also a tie for play. We know from research that we need a good deal of play to develop and there’s such a small window for each developmental step and play is an important part of that.”
Kennedy believes that children spend time outdoors as part of their development of creativity.
“I know iPads do foster creativity,” she says, “but it’s limited to the device and its apps. There has to be time for creative playing. Children are going to miss that opportunity if they’re indoors playing computer and video games.”
Just as important, Kennedy says that physical play helps foster sleep.
“It expels energy in a healthy way,” she says. “And so kids are tired and ready for a good night’s sleep.”