The Ninja that helps kids sleep

Cure Kids funds research into a digital app able to tell teens when to get ready for bed.



An app that could help teenagers sleep better – and may have a knock-on benefit of improving their mental health – is to be trialled in New Zealand later this year.

The app, which among other features sends notifications to tell young people when it is time to start preparing for bed, can help teens develop skills to sleep better.

Researchers from the University of Auckland are looking into whether the Australian-developed app, called Sleep Ninja, is effective for Kiwi kids.

Dr Nicola Ludin, who is a research fellow in the university’s Department of Psychological Medicine, says Sleep Ninja could potentially be a great tool in helping teens whose sleep deprivation is having an impact on their wellbeing and mental health.

“While the links between sleep and mental health are becoming better defined, we don’t have enough research here in New Zealand, especially for rangatahi (young people) and on what we might be able to do to help,” says Ludin.

Sleep Ninja is one of nine new research projects being funded by the charity Cure Kids. The largest funder of child health research other than the government, Cure Kids has awarded Ludin $100,000 as part of its annual Innovation and Discovery Round.

Ludin says not getting enough sleep may be harmful to young people because it can impact emotion regulation, affect decision-making – raising the chances of high-risk behaviour like drug and alcohol use – and increase the risk of mental health disorders such as anxiety and depression.

Research shows that mental illness in young people in Aotearoa New Zealand has risen significantly over the last 10 years.

“As well as being a risk factor, sleep issues can also be a symptom of a mental health problem” says Ludin.

There are a variety of reasons why many young people don’t get enough sleep. One is biological,  young people naturally start to experience a shift in sleep patterns during adolescence and begin dropping off later at night.

“Often they can’t catch up on that sleep in the morning because they have to get up to go to school or other commitments, so they’ve lost an hour or two and over time they build up a deficit.”

Ludin says struggling to fall asleep due to worry and stress can be a reason for insomnia, while social factors also play a part. Some teenagers delay their bedtime because they are looking at their phones or devices, playing games, doing homework, connecting with friends or their family or work responsibilities keep them up. As a result, many young people are sleep deprived.

“If we can support young people at this time in their life then they might be better equipped as they go into adulthood to know how to sleep better, and sleep more,” says Ludin.

The app is a practical way of encouraging young people to develop sleep skills. It can track how much sleep they get, help them to work out how much they need, send them notifications of when they need to start preparing for bedtime and suggest ways of winding down.

“If you have worked out that 10 o’clock is the time you need to be going to bed then you’ll get a notification at 9pm to remind you that it is time to start winding down and to maybe have a shower to help with that.”

It also features training sessions that involve inputting information, such as what time they went to bed and got up. As they move through the sessions they progress in stages known as “belts” until they end up with a “black belt” in sleep.

“Having a digital platform is a really good way of reaching teenagers as they are on their phones so much of the time and they get a lot of their information that way. However, looking at a phone screen can be quite stimulating so we are aware that we have to balance that with encouraging better sleep habits.”

The app will be trialed for 30 days from August by a group of 50 16 to 18 year olds. One of the things Ludin and co-lead researcher, clinical psychologist Dr Tania Cargo, will be looking closely at is how well it works for rangatahi Māori.

“We have to find out whether the app is acceptable because we know many rangatahi Māori experience greater sleep deprivation and poorer sleep quality than non-Māori. It is another area of health where there is inequity, making bicultural leadership crucial,” says Ludin.

Ludin says without the support from Cure Kids and the Kiwis who donate to it, the trial wouldn’t be happening.

“We are incredibly grateful because the topic of young people, sleep and mental health is important.  It means a great deal that we’re getting the opportunity to do really meaningful research.”

Cure Kids Chief Executive Frances Benge says it is only through the generosity of Kiwis that it can continue to fund research into child health like that being undertaken by Ludin and her team.

“We encourage people who are able to to consider making a donation to support future projects so our children can have healthier lives with brighter futures.”