Sleep Deprivation in Teens | Is Technology To Blame?

Sleep Deprivation In Teenagers Is A Concerning Reality

Sleep deprivation in teens is a growing health and well-being concern, exacerbated by excessive use of screen-based technologies. Consequently, there is an emerging trend connecting the overuse of technology with behavioural issues, anxiety, and decreased academic performance in teenagers.

Key Statistics:

  • In the UK, studies indicate almost 50% of teens are sleep deprived [8]

  • In Australia, similar studies show 70% of 14-year-old girls are not getting enough rest [3]

  • 75% of teenagers aged 14-16 regularly send messages after midnight, with a further 45% sending messages after 3 am [3]

Sleep is critical to overall health and well-being, especially for teenagers who actually need extra sleep due to natural hormone changes. It is recommended that teens aged between 14 and 17 years-old should be getting 8-10 hours of sleep each night [2, 3]. As paediatric and adolescent sleep physician Doctor Chris Seton told the Sydney Morning Herald:

“The list of problems associated with drowsy teenagers runs to pages. Impaired learning. Mood swings. Anxiety. Depression. More prone to developing a negative body image. Low self-esteem. A loss of their sense of humour. Sleep-hungry teens are also more likely to eat fast food two or more times a week, have difficult relationships with their parents, increase school absenteeism and be put on detention” [3].

Lack of sleep is continually linked to decreased academic performance, impairing cognitive function and inhibiting memory. In fact, even when a teenager has sufficient sleep and is able to actively participate and learn at school the next day, their hard work can become undone if they don’t get adequate sleep that night, as sleep deprivation can prevent information from consolidating into long-term memory [3, 8]. Some teenagers have even been misdiagnosed with ADHD because the symptoms of hyperactivity can appear similar to some side effects of sleep deprivation [8].

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The Overuse Of Devices Is Reducing The Amount Of Sleep For Many Teens

Many parents feel their children are incredibly reliant on smartphones and other devices, even to the point where it impacts the amount of sleep they get each night. Doctor Sarah Loughran, a sleep researcher at the University of Wollongong, argues that “the main effect of overusing media devices is that it can decrease the total amount of sleep kids get” [6]. While most parents are vigilant in managing screen time with their young children, the lines can begin to blur with teenagers. Teenagers begin to rely on technological devices more for schoolwork,  and legitimate social interactions with their friends. The challenge for parents is to help their children self-regulate the amount of time they spend on technology every day and make sure they understand the value of a full 8-10 hours of restful sleep. While technology can cut into the amount of sleep your teenager is getting, it can have detrimental effects on their quality of rest as well.

How Are Devices Negatively Impacting Teens’ Quality of Sleep?

Blue lights and backlit screens can be hugely detrimental to sleep patterns and largely contribute to sleep deprivation Research continually demonstrates that exposure to blue light when we are trying to sleep tells our brains that it’s day and therefore time to wake up. Light exposure inhibits the production of melatonin, which is the major hormone controlling sleep and wake cycles [4]. While any artificial light can disrupt the circadian rhythms of the body, a screen’s light is particularly damaging. The light emitted by phones, tablets and e-readers contains a great deal of blue coloured wavelengths with a greater stimulating effect.[7].

Once your teenager has fallen asleep, any notifications they receive during the night could also wake them or disrupt their sleep. The flash of light from a notification, or the tone or vibration from a message, is another factor contributing to sleep deprivation. Research shows 40% of people will check their phone during the night if a notification wakes them, and less than a second’s exposure to light can have a negative effect on sleep quality [7].

Fighting Sleep Deprivation Caused By Technology

There are a number of solutions to help minimise the impact of technology on sleep quality and quantity. These can be broadly divided into solutions reducing the negative effects of screen light and disruptions during the night as explained below.

#1 Total Amount Of Sleep: Reducing The Effects Of Screen Exposure

The most effective, but often impractical solution to reducing the negative effects of screen light is to enforce a technology ban before bedtime. Monitoring screen time is an increasing pressure of modern parenting and sleep experts advise on 2-3 screen-free hours before going to sleep [6, 7]. This is often unrealistic as, depending on your family’s schedule, your teenager might be doing homework right up until bedtime. It’s nearly impossible to block all light that could affect our children’s melatonin-driven circadian rhythms, especially considering that even normal room lighting can affect the brain [5]. A practical solution to reducing the harmful effects of screen lights is to install a program on the laptop, phone or tablet that will reduce short-wavelength light. One example of this is f.lux which, adapting to light levels, adjusts the colour of light the device emits during the day and night [5].

Another practical way to minimise screen time on a smartphone is to utilise the ‘Do Not Disturb’ function, which suspends messaging but allows access to the Internet. This can be useful for a teenager to turn on if they are using their device for homework and might even help them get their work done faster and get to bed earlier.

#2 Sleep Quality: Reducing Disruption During The Night

Not only can screen light keep your teenagers awake longer, but late-night technology use is also linked to sleep disturbance once they fall asleep [2]. To get a solid night’s rest, it’s important to feel safe enough to fall into a deep sleep. A large portion of teenagers fall asleep with their phones nearby – often on their bedside table or under their pillow. This can be detrimental to sleep patterns as it creates a sense of anxiety and a subconscious compulsion to check for notifications.

The term ‘infomania’ refers to the anticipation of waiting for a reply to a message, keeping the brain alert [3]. The body stays in a state of hypervigilance, and sleep is more likely to be disrupted. This reduces the restorative quality of deep sleep, leading to sleep deprivation [7].

While keeping phones outside of the bedroom is the ideal solution, it may not be a practical option in every family. An alternative option is to ensure ‘Airplane Mode’ is turned on during the night, suspending connection to the Internet and blocking notifications, so your teenager can get a solid rest. Alternatively, parents may want to utilise parental controls that enable them to switch off Internet access after an agreed time.

How To Balance Technology With Activity To Maximise Sleep Quality

Outdoor exercise in bright light is ideal to help create balance and promote healthy sleeping patterns [6]. The Australian Department of Health recommends that young people aged 13–17 years should participate in a minimum of one hour’s moderate to vigorous physical activity each day [1]. Digital entertainment technology which is utilised while seated, such as television, games and computers, should be limited to a maximum of two hours each day to minimise health risks associated with excessive sedentariness [1].

In this modern world, technology is integrated into our lives. Teenagers often need computer access for schoolwork and social media messaging, which is useful in maintaining and strengthening healthy social relationships. However, we can make more positive routines wherever possible. A small step is to start by breaking up long periods of sitting wherever possible, even if it’s a small amount of activity [1]. Natural sunlight and outdoor activities can both be hugely beneficial in creating and maintaining healthy circadian rhythms.

Teen Sleep Cycles

With or without technology, some teenagers will still struggle to fall asleep [3]. Studies indicate that natural hormone changes result in teens wanting to go to sleep later, and wake up later in the morning [8]. Many of them lead incredibly busy lives, with school, family commitments, friendships and extracurricular activities. These pressures can push back bedtime, with teenagers commonly not even starting their homework until late in the night [3]. They rely on technology both academically and socially and sleep can easily be pushed to the end of the priority list.

It’s important that we reinforce to our children the importance of getting enough rest.  As noted by Russell Foster, Professor of Circadian Neuroscience at Oxford University:

“Within the context of teens, here we have a classic example where sleep could enhance enormously the quality of life and, indeed, the educational performance of our young people. Yet they’re given no instruction about the importance of sleep and sleep is a victim to the many other demands that are being made of them” [8].

Key Recommendations For Parents

Sleep deprivation is worsened by our modern reliance on digital technology, but there are ways we can help our teenagers:

  • Minimise technology’s detrimental effect on sleep quality by turning off all screen devices at minimum 1-2 hours before bedtime

  • Consider installing one of the varieties of apps that are available on phones, laptops and tablets to block short-wavelength light, or in the operating system.

  • Switch off Internet access or turn on ‘Airplane Mode’ before bedtime to suspend notifications; or, better still, keep devices out of bedrooms altogether

  • Turn on the ‘Do Not Disturb’ function before homework time to suspend notifications but still access the Internet, minimising distractions and ensuring your teenager gets to bed faster

  • Reinforce the importance of creating a balance between sedentary indoor activities and active outdoor activities, as this plays an important role in promoting healthy sleep cycles

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