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Column originally published Feb 14, 2012
Column last revised/updated on Jul 27, 2018

Be Careful About Buying Extra TV and Smartphone

Question: We have a dilemma. Our eight-year-old son is asking for a television in his bedroom. We are worried that he will watch TV or play videogames when he should be sleeping. He promises us that this will never happen. Our twelve-year- old daughter wants a smartphone because all of her friends have one. We are worried that these gadgets may not be the best things for our children, but we don’t know how to respond. Almost all of their friends have televisions in their bedrooms, and they text continuously. We don’t want this to happen in our family. Please give us suggestion how we should deal with the demands of this electronic age.


I am very glad that you ask this very practical question. In my work, I have been asked many times by parents like you, about this modern-day dilemma: what should we give to our children, and what kind of limit that we should set.

Let me begin with your son’s request for a television in his bedroom. This problem began when the cost of television sets dropped remarkably in the last few decades. Some parents do this to reduce fighting among adults and children when they want to watch different programs, or when children want to play videogames. This may appear to be a good solution.

In reality, research has shown that having television in children’s bedroom can affect their sleep and their learning. Although children may promise to turn off the TV before bedtime, or never to play videogames late at night, sooner or later, it will become the focus of argument, and parents often give up to preserve some degree of family harmony.

Watching television late in the evening will affect a child’s ability to fall asleep. Some parents tell me that watching television helps their child to fall asleep. The reality is that they watch television until they are exhausted and fall asleep. Television is never a good tool to help anyone fall asleep. They fall asleep eventually because they are exhausted, and this is usually late at night, and they will have difficulty getting up in the morning and pay attention in school.

Research has clearly shown that having television in a child’s bedroom will delay sleep. Because of lack of sleep, this will affect his learning. This may not happen right away, but will likely happen when he gets a little older, in his pre-teen or teenage years, when he naturally doesn’t feel as tired in the evening. By that time, it will be too hard to remove the television from his room.

If his wish to have his own television set is because of conflict about which TV program to watch, consider having a second television in the house, but not in his bedroom. It is also important to insist on turning off the television and videogames an hour or more before bedtime. A lot of visual stimulation can make it hard for anyone to fall asleep; the light from TV screen affects melatonin production in the brain which makes us tired in evening. If he wants to watch a program that is only broadcasted late at night, have it recorded so that he can watch it the next day. If you don’t know how to do that, ask one of your children, they know these things better than you!

In terms of smartphones, these have become ubiquitous in any junior and senior high schools, and occasionally even in elementary school. There is a lot of peer pressure to have one. Some will argue that it is an important safety tool; indeed, there have been rare occasions where the smartphones served that purpose. However, most of the time, they have been used by children and youth to text each other continuously, day and night, even when sitting across each other, or in their bedrooms. Instead of talking to each other, face to face, they text.

Many parents have found their children unable to get up in the morning to go to school because their sleep was constantly interrupted through the night. Every time a text is received, the phone will chirp to announce its arrival, and wakes the child, who has to read and reply. As a result, it is not possible to have deep sleep that everyone needs to feel refreshed the next day. Deep sleep, also called REM sleep, is very important for children’s learning: it is during the REM sleep when new concepts that they have learned become permanent memory in the brain. Lack of REM sleep will harm a student’s learning.

Another concern in this digital age is cyber bullying. This is sometimes more serious than physical bullying. Parents need to know who they are talking to, and what they are talking about.  Sexting (sending sexually explicit images) is also of great concern; teenagers have committed suicide because of bullying from others after their intimate images were shared online.

If your daughter insists on getting a smartphone, you need to set parameters for her well-being and safety. I would suggest that she turns off the phone before she goes to bed, and you keep it in your bedroom for charging at night, to make sure that she has a good night sleep. You also should set times when she should not use the phone, like around the dinner table, so that your family can talk to each other.

In addition, I would suggest that computers should be in common areas and not in children’s bedroom, so that you can provide supervision and guidance. You should also set limit to the total screen time: time in front of TV, videogames, and computer combined. This should be no more than 1-2 hours a day. They should be encouraged to do physical activities instead of having too much screen time.

I hope you find these suggestions sensible and useful. Take time to talk to your children before buying any of these gadgets.