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Electronic Sunset: What Overstimulation Does To Our Days And Nights

09/19/2011 08:29 am ET | Updated Nov 19, 2011

Watching too much fast-paced television isn't good for your sleep. Even worse, this can seriously impair your mental functioning during the day, regardless of your age.

A recent study in the journal Pediatrics found that four-year-old children viewing fast-paced television for nine minutes demonstrated impaired executive functioning.

What is executive functioning? It is simply a collection of mental activities that involve, among other things, planning, working memory, problem-solving and inhibition regulation.

The study only focused on the immediate effect of watching fast-paced television, but other studies have already shown that too much television viewing, especially of programs featuring intense subject matter, affects long-term attention and learning abilities. In fact, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends limiting children over age two to no more than two hours of high-quality, educational-based television per day.

The study defined faced-paced television viewing as watching scenes that change every 11 seconds and Sponge Bob Square Pants was an example of a children's show that meets that criteria. In contrast, slow-paced television viewing was defined as a show presenting a scene that changes every 30 or more seconds and Caillou was an example of a children's show that satisfied that criteria.

So we know what happens with children who watch too much fast-paced television. What about adults? The effect is similar. The difference with adults is that adults have more mental resources to allocate to the task of processing fast-paced information. But we still only have so many mental resources, so something else takes a hit and resources used to do other things become depleted.

Fast-paced television only mimics the behaviors we adopt as adults. Texting, emailing, making and receiving phone calls and over-multitasking are not meaningfully different than watching television that changes every 11 minutes when it comes to how this affects the mind.

Over-multitasking without mental breaks leads to stress, mental fatigue and burnout. And consequently, your sleep is a sensitive indicator of your stress level. A high stress level means poor sleep. How can you counteract the effect of constant activity and information overload? Having an established bedtime and a pre-bedtime routine will help you navigate around these sleep pitfalls.

Television in the evening is a staple of American life. For your children, you should follow the AAP recommendations of limiting their viewing time to one to two hours. Also, be mindful of what they're watching and look for low intensity shows that can ease them into a relaxed mode before bedtime.

For children whose brains have been taxed during the day, it's especially important that they get the requisite amount of sleep for their age. For example, The National Sleep Foundation recommends pre-schoolers ages three to five get 11 to 13 hours of sleep each night.

For both children and adults, a solution for recovering from the daily mental grind or over-exposure to a fast-paced environment is to have a relaxing bedtime routine. Once you establish your bedtime and stick to it, you should spend an hour beforehand preparing for bed. Think of this wind-down measure as a powering-down opportunity to help ease your mind into a sleep state that'll rejuvenate you mentally and physically.

This involves, among other things, turning off electronics, and starting the process of preparing for your next day. This may include brushing and flossing your teeth, putting on your pajamas or arranging clothes for the next day.

Spend the last 30 minutes before bed listening to peaceful music, meditating or reading. Of course, if you read, it should be something light and mindless as opposed to reading a textbook or something work-related. The objective here is to not seek to learn new information or be productive shortly before bedtime.

Mediation is an underutilized practice in western society. Meditation is a process of quieting your mind and blocking out external distractions. There are many techniques that can be used to achieve this state of peacefulness. Some of these techniques involve focusing on your breathing, progressive muscle relaxation or visualizing pleasant scenes. Whichever method you choose, adequate mental downtime is crucial to maintaining a sense of well-being.

Ideally, it's best to structure your day so that it doesn't excessively tax your brain, which can make both children and adults irritable. But if you don't have much control over your schedule or exposure to high-intensity activities, getting adequate sleep is a way to recover from the toxic effects of over-stimulation. Start by establishing a regular bedtime with a pre-bedtime ritual that starts one hour before. If you get your entire family to adhere to this routine, everyone can reap the benefits.