How to outsmart screen time for a better bedtime routine
A cognitive specialist explains a hack for your evening bedtime routines to make the transition from screen time to bedtime as smooth as a lullaby.
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How did you sleep last night?
Research shows that sleep is just as important for children as a healthy diet and physical activity for a developing brain. Yet many children today are dealing with sleep deprivation.
That’s why, every night, it’s the same routine in our house. At 6:30 PM we shut down screen time and the laptops, tablets and electronic devices go off and into their designated charging station. Then it’s family time—a carefully created serotonin-inducing routine (with a little smart tech built in) that’s designed to help us all get a good night’s sleep. And it works. Even with two brilliant, neurodivergent children whose best friends are electronics.
Why does it work? Because this evening routine considers how cortisol, dopamine and serotonin work together so that our family time is more rewarding than the screen time the kids would be getting before bed.
It’s not magic. It’s neurotransmitters and hormones. Here’s how you can create a better evening routine for your family.
Bedtime routines: But first, sleep
When you spend an extended period of time in rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, the brain begins processing and retaining the information that occurred earlier during the day. That’s an important time for children to process everything they learned that day—important developmental and cognitive skills and academic knowledge. Not getting enough REM sleep can impact information retention.
How much sleep a kid needs is based on age and developmental stage. Since sleep boosts brain development, babies need the most sleep. The Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine recommends the following for optimal health:
Infants 4 months to 12 months should sleep 12 to 16 hours per 24 hours (including naps).
Children 1 to 2 years of age should sleep 11 to 14 hours per 24 hours (including naps) on a regular basis.
Children 3 to 5 years of age should sleep 10 to 13 hours per 24 hours (including naps) on a regular basis.
Children 6 to 12 years of age should sleep nine to 12 hours per 24 hours on a regular basis.
Teenagers 13 to 18 years of age should sleep eight to 10 hours per 24 hours on a regular basis.
Modern life, busy schedules and screen time throughout the day can all impact the body’s natural circadian rhythms. And like any rhythm, if the drummer’s off the beat, it can throw off the whole show.
The circadian rhythm is the natural internal process that regulates the sleep and awake states. These 24-hour cycles manage physical, behavioral and mental changes. Circadian rhythms can influence hormone release, body temperature and digestion, which are essential functions in our body.
Here are some of the key hormones and neurotransmitters affected by the circadian rhythm and how they affect your child.
Good morning, cortisol
Cortisol is responsible for a lot that goes on in your body: It controls your stress response, regulates metabolism and is anti-inflammatory. Levels are highest in the morning. When cortisol levels are out of balance, a child can feel anxious and have attention and focus issues.
The reward center: dopamine
Dopamine helps facilitate communication among the regions of the brain called the “reward center.” It’s also essential for movement and memory. Spending time on screens can boost dopamine levels—for a good reason. Instant gratification from racking up points in a game, or getting that instant message from a friend, feels good. It’s a big reason why transitioning off screens can leave kids feeling cranky or sluggish. That’s also why some kids beg for another five or 10 minutes of screen time.
Making memories with serotonin
Serotonin is known as the “happy chemical.” This neurotransmitter regulates mood, and when it’s in balance, you can feel happier, calmer and more focused. It’s also the chemical responsible for waking up and falling asleep. When you think back to a happy childhood memory, serotonin kicks in to help you retrieve that memory. Serotonin-inducing activities, such as spending time with a caring parent, help your brain remember: “This is something I look forward to, and I want to do it again.”
Melatonin to sleep
When the lights go off, melatonin kicks in to help you fall asleep. As the sun or light enters the room, your body starts to make less melatonin, so you can wake up naturally. Screens can interrupt this rhythm and fool your brain into not producing enough melatonin, causing you to stay alert longer than anticipated.
From screen time to bedtime
Teenagers have other hormones interfering with their daily rhythms, but in focusing on the hormones above, this routine works best with most kids under the age of 13.
- 6:30 PM — Turn off all electronic devices and put them into their designated spaces.
6:30 to 7 PM — Engage in an activity you’ve planned that kids can look forward to after getting off screens, such as going outside or having a dance party. In our house, we use this time to transition from the work and school day to family time. We’re all working together to get dinner ready, such as setting the table or doing other house chores
7 PM — Have family dinner together. At the dinner table, everyone takes a turn talking about their day. That’s when serotonin can kick in as we’re talking together, bonding, building memories, and it becomes something that the kids look forward to each night.
7:15 PM — Get ready for bed. The kids go upstairs, brush teeth and come downstairs with a book for us read together. Kids don’t always like to do things such as brushing their teeth. We intentionally stack this type of chore with a reward, or something that they look forward to. So they start to associate something they need to do with something they want to do, which is read together.
7:30 PM — Have kids choose their own unwinding activities in their rooms that don’t involve screens, such as reading on their own, or listening to audiobooks or music on smart speakers. And if it’s been an active or stressful day, incorporate some light stretching, using some stretching apps as a guide.
8 PM — Listen to calming sounds on smart speakers before bed. My son likes fire crackling sounds, my daughter likes rain sounds.
- 8:30–9 PM — Fall asleep to favorite sounds as the lights go down and melatonin kicks in.
It may sound like common sense, but the goal is to ensure that time with you is just as rewarding as screen time. So it’s about creating the kind of bedtime routine that sets up both you and them to make the best of that time together.
Smart Family has features and controls that can help with a better bedtime when used to help apply the suggestions above.