Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Sleepy Time: Spanish kids and education

"It's often past midnight, well past midnight and you can hear the boy and what's probably a TV. This isn't just weekends by any means. And then you can hear them getting up at seven the next morning. Maybe he has a siesta, but if not, he's surely suffering from sleep deprivation. It can't be good. And it's been like this for some years. He's fourteen now, but it was a similar pattern when he was much younger."

This is the drift of what I was told by someone (English) who lives in a semi and whose neighbours are Mallorcan. Being a semi, you can hear something of what goes on next door and you are aware of people being up late. It is only one story, but how typical is it? How normal is it for Spanish kids (and indeed kids from other nationalities) to be up until past midnight and to seemingly get too little sleep? Quite normal, you might tend to think.

The broadcaster Telecinco has been criticised for showing "La Voz Kids", the children's version of "The Voice", between 10pm and 1.25am on Thursday nights. The average viewing figure for the show was 5.1 million in all. When the final was broadcast, ratings data suggested that over 300,000 viewers were children. They may not all have watched to the end, but you would guess that most did. 

Spanish TV programmes have a tendency to go on for an inordinately long time. Partly this is because of interminable and regular ad breaks. Partly it is because they are simply over long. Put these two factors together and you get a show that lasts for almost three and a half hours, one that doesn't start until 10pm on a weekday. If you take my anecdote, then you can add other examples of late broadcasting which are keeping children awake into the early morning.

Television is only element. It's a cultural thing, so the justification goes. We are all familiar with the sight of children being up and around late in Mallorca. It is nothing unusual. But is it good for them? Has this cultural fact of life been a contributory factor in educational underperformance, something which is more acute in Mallorca and the Balearics than in most other other parts of Spain?

Towards the end of 2012, the Spanish Institute for Sleep Research launched a campaign called "I Have a Dream". It was designed to promote better sleeping habits among children. What the institute was mainly concerned with were the health consequences of inadequate sleep - obesity and the development of diabetes - but it also considered educational performance and the effects of late-night TV watching and computer screen use. Its director was in doubt that fewer hours of sleep plus the wrong signals being sent to the brain by this late-night viewing were contributing to attention deficit syndrome. He said that 60% of Spanish children got less sleep than is recommended, that 30% displayed symptoms of daytime sleepiness, that there had been an ongoing tendency since the mid-1980s for children to go to bed later and that two-thirds of kids between the ages of ten and fifteen made the decision themselves as to what time they went to bed.

Research published in 2011 studied sleep among children from the ages of two to nine in different European countries. It found, among other things, that the percentage of children in, for instance, Germany, who slept between ten and eleven hours was almost 28%. For Spain, the percentage was under 5%. But other international research, published last year by the Boston College in the US, showed that, for maths teaching, Spanish teachers reported that 38% of pupils suffered from a lack of sleep. This was a comparatively low percentage. A higher one was for Finnish pupils. 60% of them suffered from lack of sleep, and yet maths performance is very much higher in Finland than Spain.

A conclusion that was drawn from the Boston research was that the use of phones and computers (to which could be added TVs) late at night was resulting in the lack of sleep and was a particular problem in more affluent countries. Does this mean, therefore, that Spain is a comparatively less affluent country?  

Drawing firm conclusions as to the relationship between sleep and the school performance of Spanish children is difficult because of apparent contradictions between these different pieces of research. And in any event, does research for Spain as a whole equate to the situation in Mallorca?

It may be right to criticise broadcasters, but before people get too critical or draw inaccurate conclusions, perhaps there ought to be thorough research into the sleep of children in different parts of Spain and the relationship with school performance. Only then might it be possible to say for sure that Mallorcan kids need more sleep or don't.

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