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Will Super Mario Keep Your Child From Slumberland?

There are many parents who ask me about videogames before bed: are they harmful for sleep?
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Does this scenario play out in your home before bed time?

"But Dad, I can't save it in the middle of my level!"

"And I just got the superpowers to shoot cupcake bombs from my turtle machine gun!"

"How could I possibly turn this off and get ready for bed?"

"How about 20 more minutes and then I will get ready? Or better yet can you bring my PJ's and toothbrush in here?"

There are many parents who ask me about videogames before bed: are they harmful for sleep? And with the transition from summer vacation, where bedtime rules are often more relaxed, to back to school with bedtime stresses, I am getting this question frequently.

A new study published in The Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine (2010) may be able to shed a little bit of light on the subject.

Previous research indicated that pre-sleep video game play was in fact disruptive to pre-teen sleep. Currently the research would suggest that stimulating, nighttime videogame playing by adolescents leads to:

  • Later bedtimes
  • Insufficient sleep
  • Increased daytime tiredness

But these behaviors are also consistent with being a teenager, so more detailed information was needed to better answer this question.

Research groups decided to look directly at the effect of pre-sleep videogame playing on adolescents' ability to fall asleep, but the results were mixed. One group reviewed 11 adolescents (average age: 13) and found that playing videogames for one hour between 6 p.m. and 7 p.m. on average lead to a 22 minute increase in the time it took them to fall asleep, versus a group of adolescents who did not play video games.

Another study reviewed a group (average age: 25) and found only a mild increase in the time it took to fall asleep (2.3 min) after playing video games for two hours and 45 min, however these participants went to bed at 2 a.m. and were almost two times the age of the first group! So it easily could have been their age or that the late bedtime was what made them so sleepy that they fell asleep so quickly.

This most recent study's results were in fact the opposite of what you might have expected. A group of 13 male adolescents (average age: 16) was asked to either play a videogame (Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare) before bed or watch a DVD (March of the Penguins), used as a control condition. The research showed:

  • Video gamers fell asleep on average in 7.5 minutes, while the same teens fell asleep on average in three minutes when watching the movie before bed
  • This was not a tremendous difference, as expected from previous research
  • Video gamers reported that they felt less sleepy after playing the video game, versus when they were watching the DVD
  • I think several kids actually fell asleep while watching the video -- this speaks to either a boring movie, or teen sleep deprivation!
  • The heart-rate of both groups remained the same during the experimental conditions, within normal resting limits
  • The cognitive alertness of both groups remained the same during experimental conditions, both showed mild increases
  • REM sleep and Slow Wave Sleep in both groups remained the same during experimental conditions

So what does this mean for us as parents?

We already know that teenagers like to stay up late and sleep late due to their internal biological clock (circadian rhythm). As a result of their new "Night Owl" status they have some time to fill, and since electronic media is so prevalent, many will choose to play games, talk or text late into the evening. The effects of pre-sleep videogame playing seems small in this group (remember these were 16-year-olds). The experiment was limited in that it did not review other activities that could be sleep promoting: reading, meditation, listening to soft music, etc.

The jury is still out and the science is mixed on video game use before bedtime -- so my advice:

1) Try and keep your teens on a regular bedtime schedule, this will always help with better sleep.

2) Try to find activities that are more sleep promoting before bed in this age group, since you are fighting an uphill battle with their biology anyway.

3) If it is a huge battle, which can cause emotional responses before bed, it may be better to either find another time for the videogames -- or you could place a timer on the TV so that right before bed is just not an option!

Sweet Dreams,

Michael J. Breus, PhD

The Sleep Doctor™

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