Teen smartphone use and lack of sleep may be linked

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Teens who spend more than an hour or two on their smartphones each day may not be getting a enough sleep at night, new research suggests.

“The way tech companies develop these algorithms is like making a drug…”

The research is the strongest evidence to date that teens’ increased use of electronic devices in recent years is responsible for similar rises in insufficient sleep.

Researchers analyzed data from two national surveys of more than 360,000 teens, focusing specifically on changes in sleep and smartphone use from 2009 to 2015. They noted an abrupt change in teens’ sleep habits around 2012, the same time smartphones became more prevalent.

According to the study, as time spent on smartphones increased, so did the percentage of teens getting insufficient sleep:

  • Relative to 2009, 17 percent more teens in 2015 reported sleeping fewer than seven hours a night.
  • 35 percent of teens using electronic devices for one hour a day slept fewer than seven hours.
  • 52 percent of teens using electronic devices for five-plus hours slept fewer than seven hours.
  • For comparison, those spending more than five hours were 50 percent more likely to sleep less than those spending an hour a day.

Nine hours a night

Insufficient sleep is one of the many health consequences stemming from an increased dependency on technology, says Zlatan Krizan, an associate professor of psychology at Iowa State University. This is especially concerning for teens who are not getting the recommended nine hours of sleep each night.

“Our body is going to try to meet its sleep needs, which means sleep is going to interfere or shove its nose in other spheres of our lives,” Krizan says. “Teens may catch up with naps on the weekend or they may start falling asleep at school.”

Establishing good sleep habits and setting smartphone limits at an early age helps promote responsible use later in life. Jean Twenge, lead author of the study, San Diego State University professor, and author of the book iGen (Simon and Schuster, 2017), says this study illustrates the need for moderation, particularly for generations of teens now growing up with smartphones.

“Given the importance of sleep for physical and mental health, both teens and adults should consider whether their smartphone use is interfering with their sleep. It’s particularly important not to use screen devices right before bed, as they might interfere with falling asleep,” Twenge says.

Sleepy teens wake at night to check social media

While personal responsibility is an important component, Krizan says that alone is not enough to reverse the trend. The issue is complicated because smartphones are beneficial for work, staying connected with family, and even for emergency notifications, such as Amber Alerts. Electronic devices are so intertwined with our daily activities that if we’re not on our phone, it is always close by.

Unlike other public health concerns, government or social interventions have a limited reach in addressing this issue, Krizan says. Schools have implemented policies and rules regarding smartphone use during class, but parents bear much of the responsibility to restrict use for teens, especially late at night. However, Krizan notes that effective change often comes from social institutions. That is why he says technology companies must be part of the solution.

Silence your phone

“The way tech companies develop these algorithms is like making a drug,” Krizan says. “The software developers want you to make sure you never put your smartphone down. They want you to check in constantly and to like and click as many times as possible. That’s why we get alerts and notifications, all of which make it more and more difficult to put the device down.”

Krizan says we are unlikely to change our behavior without tech companies giving control back to the user. Facebook and Twitter have created social rewards that drive us to check and see if someone liked one of our tweets or shared a photo we posted, he says.

“You may think you’re in control of your smartphone use, but are you? If you are always checking it, then your phone is controlling your behavior,” Krizan says. “It’s the drug of the 21st century.”

Creating a culture without active alerts and protected times when our smartphones are silent will not happen overnight, but Krizan says such steps are likely to have the greatest effect.

Should teens sleep in on school days?

The researchers report their findings in the journal Sleep Medicine.

Source: Iowa State University