By Ben Tinker, CNN Sr. Medical Producer
(CNN) — Any parent with a child old enough to speak has no doubt endured many sleepless nights as the result of bad dreams. Sometimes there’s a monster hiding in the closet. Other times there are bugs crawling underneath the bed, or a witch lurking in the hallway.
Countless observational studies have reported an association between media and sleep problems in children. But a new study published Monday in the American Academy of Pediatrics now purports a causal relationship between violent or inappropriate media and poor sleep.
The study’s authors analyzed more than 500 children aged 3 to 5, their media viewing habits and their quality of sleep. The results show that replacing violent content with age-appropriate and educational alternatives can indeed lead to improved down time.
“The results of this study are no surprise to me,” says clinical psychologist Wendy Walsh. “Young children are very concrete, literal thinkers. They just don’t get the concept of pretend monsters or pretend violence. Violent media can cause anxiety in small children that can clearly disrupt sleep.”
It should be noted that the study’s results are drawn from a much larger data pool, part of an even broader study aimed at decreasing aggressive behavior and increasing “pro-social” behavior (voluntary behavior intended to benefit another). The methods of that study include persuading parents to substitute more appropriate media content for their kids, since considerable research has demonstrated that violent media exposure can lead to aggression, as well as other behavioral and emotional problems in young children.
Participating parents were asked to lead an intervention of their kids’ TV time by replacing inappropriate content with shows such as “Curious George,” “Sesame Street,” and “Dora the Explorer.”
Moms and dads were also encouraged to watch TV alongside their children and to discuss the programs they watched with their kids. Not only does this practice increase parental awareness of the content their child is exposed to, but it also seeks to enhance the positive effects of educational and pro-social media (although another study concluded such co-viewing and subsequent discussions might not mitigate the negative effects of violent or scary media).
Quality of sleep was assessed by utilizing a portion of the Child Sleep Habits Questionnaire, which in part quantifies the frequency of sleep-onset latency, repeated night wakings, nightmares, difficulty waking in the morning and daytime tiredness. The most common sleep problem, according to the authors, was difficulty with sleep-onset latency, with 26% of children taking more than 20 minutes to fall asleep a majority of nights per week.
Following baseline measurements, children in the intervention group experienced statistically significant reductions in their sleep disruptions, as compared with those subjects in the control group. Six months after the interventions ended, however, the improvements decreased. The study’s authors therefore encourage parents to continue making healthy media choices for their children as they grow older and media options continue to evolve.
“Whether that video content is violent or not,” Walsh adds, “watching any TV… before bed can affect the ability to sleep well. TV is just too stimulating before bed, even for adults.”