Image: Kids play video games under a sheet
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Exposure at night to bright lights from a computer or television can interfere with sleep, experts say.
By contributor
updated 1/14/2010 8:45:15 AM ET 2010-01-14T13:45:15

Twelve-year-old Nicholas Ho was so exhausted each morning, he could barely drag himself out of bed in time for school.

Concerned that something might be seriously wrong with his son, Chi Ho took Nicholas to a sleep specialist. But after a night in the sleep lab, doctors reassured the Tampa, Fla., family that Nicholas was perfectly normal. The fix was simple: He just needed to learn the rules of good sleep.

Now, his 10:30 p.m. bedtime is non-negotiable. The computer must be turned off by 9 p.m., and electronic devices are banned from Nicholas’ room. He spends an hour each night cooling down.

"I pet my dogs and watch some cartoons," Nicholas says.

His dad says Nicholas is a sunnier kid now that he's getting a good night's sleep. “He’s got more energy now and is less anxious.”

New research may explain why. Earlier bedtimes make for happier, less depressed kids, according to a new study in the journal Sleep.

Adolescents and teens with strict bedtimes of 10 p.m. or earlier were less likely to be depressed and to have suicidal thoughts than their classmates whose parents allowed them to stay up till midnight or even later, researchers at Columbia University found.

Happier, healthier teens
For many of America’s tweens and teens, a good night’s sleep seems to be an impossible dream. Another study published this month in the Journal of Adolescent Health examined the sleep habits of more than 12,000 high school students and found that a mere 8 percent are getting at least the recommendednine hours of shut-eye.

The Columbia researchers found that bedtimes set by parents were almost as important as the total number of hours slept. Kids who were sent to bed at midnight or later were 24 percent more likely to be depressed and 20 percent more likely to have thoughts about suicide compared to teens whose lights had to be off by 10 p.m.

James Gangwisch, an assistant professor at Columbia, and his colleagues surveyed 15,000 youngsters in grades seven through 12 and their parents and found that more than two-thirds of the adolescents said they went to bed when they were supposed to. For 54 percent of kids, that's 10 p.m. or earlier on school nights. Another 21 percent must hit the hay by 11 p.m, and 25 percent go to bed at midnight or later.

The teens were also asked to fill out depression questionnaires and were asked whether they had seriously thought about suicide over the past year.

Scientists have long known that there was a link between depression and poor sleep, Gangwisch says. But there has always been a question as to whether the depression caused insomnia or whether poor sleep led to depression. The fact that parent-enforced bedtimes play such a significant role suggests lack of sleep may actually be a cause, not just an effect of depression.

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Unplug and unwind
Getting teens to go to bed at a reasonable hour is no simple matter, of course.

But that’s partly due to the role model we provide says Dr. Rafael Pelayo, an associate professor at the Stanford University School of Medicine. “Adults treat sleep as an inconvenience,” he explains. “The kids are just imitating us.”

You might try asking your teen to try going to bed earlier for just a few days, Pelayo suggests. The best argument you can make is how much better they’ll feel after a good night’s sleep.

Once kids experience for themselves that sleep is important to performance in all things, from sports to academics, it’s easier to get their cooperation, Pelayo says.

Both you and your teens need to realize how important it is to keep the same sleep/wake schedule, whether it’s a weekday or a weekend, Pelayo says. Don’t let bedtime vary by more than an hour.

Next, make sure that the bedroom is for sleeping, not entertainment. “Some of these kids have converted their rooms into mini studio apartments,” Pelayo says. “They’ve got computers and TVs in their rooms. They’re up late playing video games and visiting Facebook.”

Pelayo tells kids it’s OK to spend time on the computer — so long as they get up early in the morning to do it. That way they won’t be exposed to bright lights at night, which will make them more wide awake. And they won’t feel like they’re being punished.

Linda Carroll is a health and science writer living in New Jersey. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Newsday, Health magazine and SmartMoney.

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