HEALTH

Sleep And Safety: Our Children Have Their Say

When left to their devices, children risk sleeplessness and unhappiness.

10/10/2017 11:15 AM AEDT | Updated 10/10/2017 11:15 AM AEDT
Kajetan Kandler
Boy sleeping

Ringing, pinging devices are eating into children's sleep and it's undermining their happiness, a major new study into the wellbeing of younger Australians shows.

And this lack of sleep is associated with them feeling isolated and unsafe in their own homes.

The latest 'Happiness Survey' of almost 47,000 children has found that children who regularly have the recommended hours of sleep each night reported significantly higher levels of both happiness and feelings of safety.

The study showed 29 percent of children report they lose some sleep a week thanks to their devices, while researchers singled out the "shocking" statistic showing a 10 percent of kids feel unsafe in their own homes, making them four times more likely to lose sleep.

The data doesn't give a cause and effect, but the University of Melbourne's Professor Lisa Gibbs said it revealed a very strong association suggesting that if kids aren't getting the right amount of sleep, then "something isn't right".

Key points:

  • 29 percent report that on at least some nights of the week their device stops them from getting enough sleep;
  • It's more common for older children (aged 12-18), with 37 percent blaming their devices;
  • This compares with compared with 27 percent among younger kids (aged 6-11);
  • About 47 percent reported that they regularly slept within reach of their device.

The study showed 29 percent of children report they lose some sleep each week thanks to their devices. It's also more common for older kids, with nearly 40 per cent of 12 to 18-year-olds blaming use of their devices for a lack of sleep.

"We ended up just asking them directly," Gibbs, who chairs the University of Melbourne's Children's Lives Initiative, told HuffPost Australia.

"Isn't it interesting that a third of kids recognise it was a factor in them not getting enough sleep. To me that says children are pretty savvy about their devices, they understand the pros and cons. That opens up the possibility of discussion in the household.

"It's a changing space, and we have to be adept to keep up with it. It's not that long ago where in our surveys we'd have to ask children about TVs in their bedroom. That's redundant now."

Sleep is important to a child's development, with study after study showing poor sleep patterns at a young age can have long lasting effects such as weight gain or obesity.

Originally planned by the ABC's Behind The News as a one-off online survey to engage its child viewers in mental health issues, the 2015 Happiness Survey proved popular and attracted almost 20,000 responses.

Now it has returned more than double that, with 47,000 children taking part in the 2017 edition. The University of Melbourne was brought on as a research partner to help interpret the results.

WHAT'S MAKING OUR KIDS HAPPY

  • Friends -- 64 percent
  • Family -- 60 percent
  • Reading -- 39 percent
  • Computer Games -- 38 percent
  • But this was split between boys and girls, with boys more likely to say computer games make them happy (52 per cent) and girls more likely to say reading made them happy (45 percent).
  • Also popular were sport, playing/listening to music, watching TV, and being outside in nature.

RED FLAGS

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Little girl napping on her mother's lap.

The Survey raised some concerning issues :

  • 6 percent reported hardly ever feeling happy;
  • 75 percent reported being scared or worried at least some of the time, with 16 percent reporting being scared or worried lots of the time;
  • 19 percent of kids said they worried about bullying or arguments;
  • 67 percent reported experiencing bullying;
  • 25 percent said they worry a lot about their bodies and;
  • 38 percent reported worrying a lot about their friendships.

Australian children are generally happy, with 62 percent reporting they are happy most of the time.

But Gibbs said she was shocked 10 percent of children reported not feeling safe at home, while 26 percent reported that they didn't have anyone they felt they could talk to about their worries.

"We did find that the ones who were not talking to others about their worries were the ones who were least likely to feel happy most of the time," Gibbs said.

The 10 percent figure is also big enough to warrant more attention, Gibbs said.

That is shocking, isn't it.Professor Gibbs

"In a country like Australia, it's a real concern," said Gibbs.

"There's a recommended amount of sleep, and then there's a margin around that. When we look at that wider margin, that's where people who don't feel safe are four times more likely to be outside of that range."

Children who reported not feeling safe, whether it is in their home, school (15 percent) or neighbourhood (25 percent), were four times more likely to not be sleeping right.

The 62 per cent of children who reported being happy lots of the time were twice as likely to be getting the right amount of sleep.

A FURRY SURPRISE

The big surprise was what the survey didn't include on its list of things that make children most happy.

In the "other" section many kids wrote in about their animals and pets.

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In the age of virtual reality and social media, they still got it.

"It is a very strong response given that we hadn't included animals or pets in the survey, and it is a reminder of the importance of pets in terms of the positive experiences they can bring to children," Gibbs said.

"And while childhood is changing that there are some traditional things that are still important, like sleep, talking, reading and maybe pets."

WHY IS SLEEP SO IMPORTANT?

Australia's Sleep Health Foundation recommends:

  • Children aged 6-13 years-old have 9-11 hours sleep a night;
  • Those aged 14-17 years-old have 8-10 hours.

But it also recommends against getting less than 7 hours or more than 11-12 hours a night:

  • On average children in the survey reported they were getting 9.5 hours sleep a night;
  • 4 percent reported getting less than 7 hours a night.

"It is during sleep several brain processes take place, memory consolidation occurs, and neural connections are strengthened," Dr Hanna Hensen, a research scientist at the NeuRA Sleep and Breathing Lab, said in a statement.

It is estimated that 40 percent of Australians aren't getting enough sleep each night. That's bad, because sleep influences the function of key organs in the body and plays an important role in our 24-hour biological rhythms.

"(It) is also an important time for processing information we have accumulated across the day; and inadequate or poor sleep can have a direct impact on mental health effecting depression, anxiety and emotional instability," she said in a statement.

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Besties, snoozing their way to some wellbeing.

"A good night sleep can improve mental health, general wellbeing, and boost workplace productivity."

In a statement, Principle Research Scientist at NeuRA, Associate Professor Danny Eckert, quoted a Deloitte report which found the financial cost of inadequate sleep in Australia was estimated to be $66.3billion in 2016-2017.

But the personal cost of inadequate sleep is higher still.

"Poor sleep leads to poor concentration and every day in Australia someone dies from a sleep-related vehicle or industrial accident," said Eckert.

"Sleep directly impacts mental health and in the long term inadequate sleep increases the risk of developing depression, anxiety disorder, and burn out."

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