Children struggling to concentrate at school due to lack of sleep, MPs told

Sally Weale Education correspondent
The inquiry heard of links between sleep deprivation and children’s use of mobiles and tablets late at night. Photograph: ljubaphoto/Getty Images

Sleep deprivation is a growing problem in schools, with pupils struggling to concentrate in lessons due to lack of sleep, MPs have been told.

Edward Timpson, minister for children and families, highlighted the issue while being questioned by MPs who are investigating the role of education in preventing mental health problems in children and young people.

Lack of sleep has been linked to children’s use of mobile phones and tablets late into the night, MPs sitting on the joint inquiry by the Commons health and education committees were told at Wednesday’s hearing.

Timpson said: “A big issue in schools now is around sleep deprivation. Children are not getting enough sleep and that causes problems concentrating.”

Doctors have previously reported a dramatic increase in children with sleep disorders; NHS data shows hospital attendances in England for under-14s have risen from almost 3,000 in 2005-06 to more than 8,000 in 2015-16.

MPs also raised concerns about the impact of social media on children’s mental health, with reports of widespread cyberbullying, and parents’ inability to protect their children.

Former government mental health champion Natasha Devon said neither teachers nor parents could keep up with the fast-moving technology and suggested schools needed IT experts to help children use social media safely.

“There is a gap in understanding between young people and their parents and teachers and the technology is developing faster than we can measure the psychological impact.

“Last year an extensive report on the impact Facebook had on self-esteem was published but teenagers aren’t on Facebook anymore. They’ve moved on to Instagram and Snapchat.”

The MPs heard that some schools try to tackle the problem by confiscating mobile phones for the duration of the day, but Devon – who founded the Self-Esteem Team – said children and young people were able to get round safety measures adults try to impose.

“I went into a boarding school where they removed their phones at the beginning of the day and handed them back at the end for a few hours – they all have two or three phones to circumnavigate that problem.

“There was an example where they gave a teenage boy the Fort Knox of laptops with every single parental control on it and challenged him to find some pornography. He did it in 30 seconds by Googling the Spanish word for pornography. They find ways around the safety measures that we put in.

“What schools need, I think, are experts in this field who are really up to date with the technology.”

Lady Tyler of Enfield, who chairs the Values-Based Child and Adolescent Mental Health System Commission agreed: “The technology is moving on at such a pace that many people, many parents, really don’t feel very well equipped to know what’s going on and how best to support their children.

“If there was that more specialist expertise in schools, I think schools would be very well advised to pass some of that on to parents in simple ways – tips on how to help manage their child’s use of social media and what the pitfalls are.”

She added: “For me what is particularly important to get across is a balance between screen time, physical activity, sleep and all sorts of things that contribute to overall wellbeing.”

Also giving evidence was Lord Layard, emeritus professor of economics at LSE, who is advising the government on a trial of weekly mindfulness classes in 26 schools.

Asked about the effectiveness of mindfulness, he said he believed in it and tried to practise it himself but added: “It’s only a part of the answer to this problem.”

He called for a “radical initiative” to support children with mild to moderate mental health disorders in a school-based setting, so they are seen early on before they become so seriously ill they reach the high thresholds required to be seen by Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services.

“It’s important to realise just how bad a place we are in. We are in a situation where only 25% of children in psychological need are receiving any kind of psychological help. That has to to be changed.”

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