This photo has been used for illustrative purpose only. TNS
Alicia Simpson’s daughter may be precocious, having skipped a grade, but mom is worried that her 8-year-old is advancing too quickly in an unhealthy way.
Bradley, a rising fourth grader, used to be an early-to-bed child but has been going to bed later since COVID-19 upended her life. She is now getting nine or 10 hours of sleep when she used to get nearly a dozen.
“For someone who clearly has a natural high need for sleep, what does this mean?” asked Simpson, who observed that her own bedtime has pushed later, too.
Simpson is experiencing something that doctors, researchers and teachers say is a real trend, with potentially harmful consequences if parents fail to rein it in. In extreme cases, they are seeing children going to bed nearly when they used to wake up.
“It’s happening,” said Dr. Stephanie Walsh, medical director of Child Wellness at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta. She is concerned because sleep affects emotional, physical and mental health — basically all aspects of life. It’s even happening in her own household: She goes to bed before her sons, but keeps them in line by reminding them she will wake them on schedule, though she admits letting them stay up later than normal, until 1 a.m.
Jordan Kohanim, a high school English teacher in Fulton County, said in the spring that her juniors were often groggy for her 10am video conferences. Many told her they’d gone to bed at 4am.
Body clocks take over
“I would say 70 per cent of my children said their sleep patterns went off the wall,” said Kohanim, who had 108 on her roster at Milton High School. “A lot of children are staying up very, very late.”
It’s not just high school students.
Bridget Edison teaches seventh grade English and social studies in Early County in southwest Georgia.
After schools closed in March, many of her 50 students started emailing her questions about their assignments later and later, some telling her they now slept until 2pm.
She worries about their brains adapting to the new pattern. “Getting back on schedule is going to be a nightmare,” she said.
This was predictable, sleep expert Donn Posner said.
“What happened with coronavirus is every day became a weekend,” he said, “and everybody was allowed to sleep in their own preferred phase.”
For reasons as yet unclear to science, the natural bedtime for teens generally shifts later, and the pandemic has exacerbated that tendency by removing the guardrails on their lives.
That can be a good thing, since people sleep better when the timing suits their natural rhythms, said Posner, an adjunct Stanford University clinical associate professor.
He worries about the consequences of extreme unstructured behaviour during the pandemic — of going to bed, and rising, too late or at inconsistent times for months on end. Some can suffer from chronic insomnia if they ignore their body clocks for too long, said Posner, president of Sleepwell Consultants in Massachusetts and a founding member of the Society of Behavioral Sleep Medicine.
“Your brain’s going to eventually forget when to put you to sleep,” he said.
Poor sleep is associated with health risks, such as Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, hypertension, obesity, dementia, depression and substance abuse. It can also undermine the body’s immune system, of particular concern during a pandemic.
The role of video games
Wright said video games are a major cause of the late-night shift.
Until a century ago when the lightbulb was invented, humans fell asleep within several hours after the sun set and woke as it rose. Now tiny lightbulbs in screens blast eyeballs with high-frequency light that inhibits the body’s production of melatonin, a hormone that regulates sleep-wake cycles. Research shows that light has a bigger impact on children, apparently because their pupils are larger and their lenses more transparent.
Video games also saturate brains with adrenaline, exciting them before bed when they need to be calmed.
Later bedtimes are associated with more social and health problems, he said. “In the long run, this late behaviour is not a good thing.”
Kohanim, the Fulton high school teacher, said her students were up late using social media, watching Netflix together and playing a Nintendo game called Animal Crossing.
“They stay up for hours upon hours playing this weird game,” she said.
Marion Ross, 15, is among the many teens in the thrall of video games.
“I’m playing my game with other folks,” he explained one recent morning, groggy because his grandmother had awoken him at 11 a.m. for the interview.
The Macon youth plays Fortnite, Grand Theft Auto and NBA 2K remotely with his friends until after sunrise sometimes.
He lives with his grandmother, Cheryl Thomas, who has been indulging him during the coronavirus lockdown. She knows he’s bored and she feels sorry for him. Normally, she’d have him in bed by 9pm, because he must wake in time for the 8.30am school bus. Now, he sleeps past noon, sometimes until 2pm.
When school starts, she said, “That game is going to be taken away. … Sometimes you’ve got to know when to be hard on them.”
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