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Is Texting Keeping Teens Up at Night?

It's hardly news that teenagers aren't getting enough sleep--90% of teens get fewer than the eight to ten hours of sleep per night recommended for healthy development and function. A growing public health concern, sleep deprivation is particularly dangerous for youths, who rely on sleep for healthy mental and physical development. With teen sleep loss growing in public attention, and technology in a sense dominating the lives of young people, we must wonder if and how our devices play into this phenomenon.

Many of us have been advised to avoid screens before turning in, on the warning that their use can hurt our sleep. Blue light emitted by screens on our computers, televisions, and smart phones is known to suppress melatonin production and disturb circadian rhythms responsible for wake and sleep cycles. Given the increasing prevalence of personal device use, particularly that of smart phones, sleep disturbance by blue light exposure is a widespread and growing problem for mobile phone owners.

It appears, however, that the issue is bigger than blue light. While studies have shown that blue light exposure before bed makes it harder for us to sleep and harms our quality of sleep, and even our alertness the next day, it seems that, for teenagers, the devices themselves are keeping them up at night. In particular, recent studies have investigated the impact text messaging has had on teens' sleep habits.

In a study by Dr. Wendy Troxel et al. of 43 adolescents, 98% of whom sent texts before 8 PM, a huge 70% continued to text between the hours of 10 PM and 5:59 AM. In a study of about 3,200 adolescents in New Jersey, about 62% of participants used their smart phones after lights out, and 57% of participants  texted, Tweeted, or messaged after lights out. This phenomenon undoubtedly contributes to the enormous rate of sleep-deprived teens, keeping young people up later at night and also using screens closer to sleep time.

The negative consequences of these habits are clear. In a survey by Dr. Xue Ming, New Jersey high school students who messaged only thirty minutes after lights out showed significantly better performance in school than their peers who texted later into the night. This should come as no surprise; the adverse effects of sleep deprivation in young people have been well-documented. Sleep deprivation correlates in a staggering way with poor mental health and, consequently, emotional and behavioral issues, substance use and abuse, and thoughts of suicide in teenagers. It also correlates with poor physical health, in particular higher rates of obesity, and greater difficulties learning and performing in school.

With such negative consequences at hand, why do so many teenagers keep pushing back bedtime? Late-night texting, while detrimental for health and wellness, seems to be serving many purposes for teens. The average teenager in the U.S. has a full, well-structured day, consisting of school, homework, and often time with family. With eight to ten hours of sleep on the schedule, a teen's packed day often leaves very little room for "me time." Unstructured time is valuable for personal and social growth, and teens are sacrificing sleep to carve it into their schedules.

With such negative consequences at hand, why do so many teenagers keep pushing back bedtime? Late-night texting, while detrimental for health and wellness, seems to be serving many purposes for teens. The average teenager in the U.S. has a full, well-structured day, consisting of school, homework, and often time with family. With eight to ten hours of sleep on the schedule, a teen's packed day often leaves very little room for "me time." Unstructured time is valuable for personal and social growth, and teens are sacrificing sleep to carve it into their schedules.

By staying up texting and otherwise using their devices, teenagers create an opportunity to socialize as well as to further explore personal interests they may not otherwise have time for and to engage in their culture and community of peers. Texting at night, during hours that teens have to themselves, also allows for self-expression and more personal, intimate conversations they may not find space or time for during the day. While the cost of lost and impaired sleep is a heavy one to pay, many teens seem to consider it a worthy one for this valuable social and developmental time.

Other social pressures may also push young people to stay up late texting and using social media on their phones. Even among young professionals persists a sense of competition around sleep deprivation. Many young people, especially adolescents, brag about how little sleep they are getting, in an effort to best their peers or to appear cool. Substantial pressure sits on youths to send text messages and post to social media at wee hours, so their peers know how late they are staying up, and consequently how little sleep they are getting. Be it an outlet for rebellion or simply a strange and specific cultural phenomenon, it's a powerful force.

Additionally, many adolescents report feeling compelled to respond to each text, tag, or Tweet, and to do so quickly. While to-the-minute text message notifications can be helpful, after lights out they can serve as an irresistible invitation for young people to check and use their phones, something that a book or even a laptop will not do to tempt their users. Why the sense of compulsion? Some teenagers report worrying about being left out of social happenings, or even that they will be talked about by friends and peers if they clock out of the conversation for the night. Or, perhaps, some teens simply feel so attached to their phones that they are hard to put down at the end of the night.

It appears pushing the boundaries of adolescent sleep needs, and the role text messaging plays in this phenomenon, are cornerstones of adolescence for many. How, then, can this be reconciled with the damage poor sleep can do to young people? Unfortunately, there may not be an immediate answer. While keeping phones away from the bed, or even out of the bedroom, might keep teens from staying up exceedingly late texting, little can be said for the many young people who inevitably won't be deterred by these measures. Perhaps we need a system that allows teenagers to take more space for themselves during the day, so that when the lights go off, they can finally find space for sleep.

About the Author -
Sharon Housley is the VP of Marketing for NotePage, Inc. a software company for communication software solutions. http://www.notepage.net

 

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