Digital disruption

Thursday 21 July, 2016

Digital Disruption

It’s a familiar scene played out in bedrooms around Australia.

Parents bid their teenager goodnight and turn off the light – only to discover that he or she who is meant to be sleeping is still watching, posting or texting hours later.

Latest research warns that technology-obsessed teens are doing more than just cutting short their hours of sleep: they’re robbing their brain of essential downtime, too.

A Rutgers University team led by Professor Xue Ming found that blue light from smartphones and tablets was intensified in dark rooms, delaying the release of the sleep hormone melatonin and making it more difficult to fall asleep.

She said Rapid Eye Movement (REM) was the period during sleep most important to adolescents for learning, memory consolidation and social adjustment. When falling asleep is delayed but the alarm clock stays the same – such as on a school day – memory and learning can be affected.

Exposure to blue light emitted by electronics is especially disruptive to sleep because it throws the body’s biological clock out of whack, according to The Harvard Medical School. It’s now well known that lack of good quality sleep on a long term basis can in fact give rise to some health concerns including cancer, diabetes, dementia, heart disease and obesity.

For adolescents, there’s the added risk of poor sleep increasing the likelihood of depression and anxiety.

In Scotland, University of Glasgow researcher Heather Cleland Woods said there are increasing links between the use of social media – particularly after dark – and overall feelings of wellbeing. She recommends families adopt a ‘digital sunset’ approach of turning off blue-light devices at the end of the day to allow the brain to naturally wind down.

So, given that we live in an increasingly connected and multi-device world, what are sensible ways parents can help?

Firstly, I believe that simply setting a zero tolerance policy is counterproductive. Digital citizenship is a genuine skill each girl will need going into tertiary studies and the workplace, and so our focus is on giving students opportunities to critically evaluate what they see online and how they communicate and behave.

I encourage you to share the facts with your children to help them understand the science behind blue lights and to let knowledge empower their decisions. You might like to read these articles here and here.

Pymble is also actively helping families to take charge of their digital habits, with each school annually partnering with parents and their daughters on a range of topics. This year’s Middle School information evening, for example, specifically gave parents information, tools and strategies to support their daughters in positive digital decision-making.

Our holistic emphasis on wellbeing is helping students to make wiser choices about their online participation. Again, success lies not in setting bans but on empowering girls to sufficiently value their own mental and physical health so that they set appropriate boundaries.

Of course, parents can and should walk the talk, too. One idea I particularly like is a house policy of leaving phones at the door when friends come around. Another is to set a family standard of no phones at the dinner table.

Let evidence be your guide as you start shedding light on the real facts of after-dark digital.