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Screen Time and Insomnia: What It Means for Teens

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Danielle Pacheco

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Dr. Nilong Vyas

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The National Sleep Foundation’s 2014 Sleep in the Modern Family poll found that three in four teenagers, and 96% of teenagers between the ages of 15 and 17, bring some kind of technology into the bedroom. In total, the average adolescent gets up to nine hours of screen time per day.

The growing use of electronic devices for school, entertainment, and social media has many benefits. However, experts are becoming increasingly concerned about the effects of blue light from these electronic devices on the sleep-wake cycle. An estimated two in three teenagers regularly sleep less than the recommended amount, and screen time may be responsible for sleep deprivation and other problems.

How Do Screens Affect the Sleep-Wake Cycle?

The human sleep-wake cycle follows a circadian rhythm that mostly takes its cues from sunlight. When it’s bright outside, we become more alert. When it becomes dark, the body produces a hormone called melatonin that induces sleepiness.

Smartphones, tablets, computers, television screens, and some e-readers give off short-wavelength blue light that is very similar to sunlight. Not only does this light make us more alert, it also deceives the body into thinking it’s still daytime.

In response, the body produces less melatonin, interfering with the body’s natural sleep-wake cycle. The longer you spend on your screen, the greater the consequences for your sleep.

Does Screen Time Cause Insomnia in Teenagers?

Screen time is linked to a host of insomnia symptoms in teenagers. By delaying the release of melatonin, screen time pushes back bedtime and leads to less restful sleep. As the majority of teens have strict school start times, a later bedtime usually results in less sleep overall and increased next-day sleepiness. Over time, consistently late weekday bedtimes and catch-up sleep on the weekend disrupt the circadian rhythm.

Scientists believe that children and adolescents may be extra-sensitive to the effects of blue light because their eyes let more light in. For this reason, limiting evening screen time in children and adolescents is especially important to prevent sleep problems.

In addition to suppressing melatonin levels, screen time for teens may directly eat into sleep time. Engaging in exciting or violent content before bedtime, or using social media, can boost alertness and impede sleepiness. Alertness and melatonin levels can also be affected by passive technology, such as a television running in the background or a smartphone that emits sounds, vibrations, and light.

There is some debate about if screen time actually causes insomnia in teens, or if teens who have trouble sleeping are simply more likely to use screens at night. To make matters more complicated, excessive mobile phone use has been linked to symptoms of depression and anxiety, which are themselves a risk factor for insomnia. It may be that sleep, screen time, and negative emotions interact to exacerbate unhealthy behaviors.

That said, the prevailing opinion is that screen time has a greater effect on insomnia than vice-versa. Studies show that 57% of teens who use technology in the bedroom suffer from sleep problems, and teens consistently report worse sleep when they have a television or small screen, such as a smartphone, in the bedroom.

Which Devices Have the Biggest Impact on Sleep Quality?

Researchers aren’t sure whether or not certain devices are worse than others when it comes to sleep problems. Computers, tablets, smartphones, televisions, and game consoles have all been shown to impact sleep, especially when used in the hour before bedtime.

Some experts believe that sleep suffers more with devices that require interactive use, such as a smartphone or a video game console. Others suggest that smartphones might impact melatonin levels more than television screens since they tend to be held nearer to the face. Along the same lines, sleep appears to suffer more when teenagers use screens in a dark room, possibly because their pupils are more dilated and let more blue light pass through.

The more time a teenager spends on a screen each day, the more likely they are to have disturbed sleep. Also, using a phone to communicate with others near bedtime could lead to less sleep as teens stay up later to wait for a reply. Finally, keeping a phone on, unsilenced overnight is also shown to disturb sleep when alerts for incoming messages awake teens.

What Are the Consequences of Sleep Deprivation for Teens?

Sleep deprivation during adolescence can cause problems with mood, emotion, and academic performance. Teens who don’t sleep well are more likely to have problems with their peers, and chronic sleep loss can lead to a weakened immune system, depression, and suicidal thoughts.

Sleep loss and screens are both risk factors for obesity as well, especially when screen time takes the place of exercise. Sleep loss also leads to increased tiredness during the day, which can be very dangerous for young drivers.

    Tips for Adolescent Screen Time and Sleep

    Because teenagers need to use screens for academic and social obligations, organizations such as the American Academy of Pediatrics prefer not to put an exact number on the recommended screen time for teens. Instead, they urge parents to develop a personalized family media plan.

    A family social media plan should include clear limits on screen time, and allot time for other activities such as sleep, family time, schoolwork, and exercise. Teens do best when they are given the chance to participate in creating their own guidelines, so consider sitting down and making a “screen time plan” together. As part of the ongoing mission to improve your teenager’s screen use habits and sleeping environment, you should:

    • Set boundaries for educational and leisure screen time.
    • Choose an age-appropriate bedtime, keeping in mind that teens need eight to ten hours of sleep.
    • Agree on a “screen curfew” and encourage your teen to reduce screen use earlier in the day when possible.
    • Decide where to charge smartphones, ideally outside of the teen’s bedroom.
    • Discuss the consequences of sleep deprivation and remind your teen that less screen time gives them more time for socializing, family time, homework, sports, and extracurricular activities.
    • Create a calming bedtime routine to replace screen use, including activities such as reading or chatting.
    • Follow sleep hygiene advice and keep the bedroom cool, dark, and quiet.
    • Dim screens, choose night modes, and switch to warm household lighting in the lead-up to bedtime.
    • Listen to your teen’s worries, such as the fear they might be missing out on social updates, and find ways to work solutions into the media plan.
    • Be aware of your teen’s technology use and talk about how to use the Internet safely and responsibly.

    Ideally, the bedroom should be a screen-free zone. Reserving the bedroom for sleep helps the brain wind down. However, it’s not always feasible to keep technology out of the bedroom. If your teen must use technology in the bedroom, ask them to turn their devices off about an hour before bedtime. Glasses or applications designed to filter out blue light also appear to minimize disruptions to teenagers’ sleep.

    To help teenagers adopt healthy screen habits, parents should strive to be positive role models by limiting their own screen use.

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    About Our Editorial Team

    author
    Danielle Pacheco

    Staff Writer

    Danielle writes in-depth articles about sleep solutions and holds a psychology degree from the University of British Columbia.

    author
    Dr. Nilong Vyas

    Pediatrician

    MD

    Dr. Vyas is a pediatrician and founder of Sleepless in NOLA. She specializes in helping parents establish healthy sleep habits for children.

    About Our Editorial Team

    author
    Danielle Pacheco

    Staff Writer

    Danielle writes in-depth articles about sleep solutions and holds a psychology degree from the University of British Columbia.

    author
    Dr. Nilong Vyas

    Pediatrician

    MD

    Dr. Vyas is a pediatrician and founder of Sleepless in NOLA. She specializes in helping parents establish healthy sleep habits for children.

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