Sleep is a crucial part of a healthy lifestyle, and doctors are regularly telling Americans that they aren’t getting enough of it. Studies have shown technology can play a role in sleep deprivation and adults aren’t the only ones sacrificing their Z’s for their smartphones, teens and adolescents are lacking quality sleep as well, possibly with far greater consequences.
Thanks to the increased portability and decreased cost of devices, many young people are growing up with a smartphone in their hand or a tablet in their backpack. Media consumption has diversified and grown exponentially, and very few studies have evaluated its effect on teens and their ability to get the recommended 9 hours of sleep a night. Many teens report staying up late to send text-messages and, in some cases, are maintaining communication in their sleep.
According to a research brief by the Kaiser Family Foundation, studies have shown that over three days, losing anywhere from 25 minutes to one hour of sleep per night can affect the performance of teenagers in school. Sleep deprivation has been linked to symptoms of anxiety and depression. Losing out on sleep can also have negative effects on memory, creativity, metabolism, mood, immune function, and behavior. Some studies even suggest that sleep deprivation during a person’s developing years can lead to more problems with sleep and mood in adulthood.
Gadgets and Melatonin
Melatonin production, the chemical that triggers your body to go into sleep mode, can be negatively impacted by bright screens; especially tablets, notebooks, and smartphones which are held closer to the face. While adults might be able to make the decision to shut off a device, or put it on silent, many teenagers and adolescents are unable to disconnect.
The Chronicle of Higher Education interviewed one student from the University of Rhode Island, Michelle Fox, about her smartphone usage. She sleeps with her cellphone next to her bed, and often wakes from sleep to answer text messages from her friends and boyfriend, which is not atypical for many teens. The researcher, Sue K. Adams, is claimed ‘you would imagine there’s something about them that’s driving them to feel like they have to stay connected. And for some of these students I think it really is anxiety – not wanting to be left out or feel like they miss something.’
Can attachment to smartphones cause anxious responses in teenagers, causing them to feel bad if they don’t respond to a text message? Studies have found that higher levels of reported anxiety generally correlates to high levels of technology use; and this was especially true in the University of Rhode Island study.
This same anxiety might be what is triggering a new sleep-phenomenon ‘sleep-texting’. Dr. David Cunnington, of the Melbourne Sleep Disorder Centre in Australia has reported seeing an increase in this condition in which people send text messages during the night, with no recollection of it in the morning.
One search for the hash tag #sleeptexting on the social media site Twitter, reveals countless tweets from young people about texts they sent in their sleep or texts they received from a sleeping friend. Showing that, even without a study, it’s easy to see this might be a rising trend among young people.
Causation or Correlation?
Research on technology interfering with sleep is lacking and many aren’t sure if technology causes anxiety or if those prone to anxiety are more likely to use technology. For many teens, turning off their smartphones or tablets could also mean turning off their social life. Young people today rely on technology to communicate and, until further research is done, many experts agree that it is smart for parents to set limits, forcing their tech-savvy kids to disconnect now and then.
The Gadget Cure
Device manufacturers could also adopt and develop new technologies to help alleviate gadget-induced sleep disorders. According to researchers at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, it’s possible. They found that, ‘In the future, manufacturers might be able to use data and predictive models to design tablets for tailored daytime light exposures that minimize symptoms of seasonal affective disorder, and sleep disorders in seniors.’
Gadgets aren’t tailored to lull users to sleep yet, but if manufacturers take this into consideration, teen’s usage of mobile devices at night could prove less detrimental. Until then, the researchers at RPI suggest what all other experts suggest; teens and adults alike should reduce the brightness of devices and reduce exposure to self-luminous devices before bed to protect melatonin production.