In the society we live in, it seems that everyone has a smartphone. Smartphones serve many functions: we use it to keep in touch with friends and family, visit social networking sites, surf the internet and even play games or listen to music. It seems our whole lives revolve around our phones. This fact is more evident in teenagers. In fact, a survey by the national sleep foundation, found that, more than half of the teens reported electronic media use (i.e. smartphones and other electronic devices) as one of their favourite activities. Over two-thirds reported that their last activity of the day was related to their smartphone use, specifically, during the last hour before going to sleep. Not known by them is that their electronic media use before bed is having an effect on their mental health. In recent years, studies have found that electronic media use before bedtime, is associated with sleep disturbances, and depressive symptoms in teenagers. Despite this, very little research has studied how smartphones have changed teenager’s bedtime routines. Additionally, research is lacking on what mediates the relationship between electronic media use and depressive symptoms in teenagers.
In light of this, a group of researchers set out to investigate whether teenagers who own a smartphone would differ from teenagers who do not, on their electronic media use before sleep. Specifically, they tested the following four hypotheses:
1. Whether owning a smartphone is related to more electronic media use in general and mainly in bed before sleep
2. Whether electronic media use in bed before sleep is related to higher levels of depressive symptoms
3. Whether electronic media use in bed before sleep is related to shorter sleep on weekday nights and/or sleep difficulties on weekday nights
4. Whether the relationship between electronic media use in bed before sleep and depressive symptoms is partly mediated by sleep duration and/or sleep difficulties.
To test out their theories, 362 teenagers (ages 12-17) completed questionnaires assessing sleep disturbance (short sleep duration and sleep difficulties) and depressive symptoms. The teenagers answered questions about how often they watched TV or movies, played video games, talked or sent text messages, and how long they spent online. After completing the questionnaires, the teens either received an interventional lesson on sleep hygiene, or general information on sleep related topics. One month later, the participants completed the same questionnaires again.
Their results showed that teenagers who owned a smartphone, sent a lot more text messages, spent more time on the Internet and on Facebook per day than teenagers who owned conventional mobile phones (i.e. not a smartphone). Furthermore, teenagers who owned a smartphone were more likely to go to bed later than other teenagers who owned a conventional mobile phone. These findings supported their first hypothesis that teenagers with smartphones report more electronic media use while in bed. This implies that the increase availability of new electronic devices drastically affect teenagers’ sleep habits. Secondly, the researchers found that indeed, electronic media use in bed before sleeping was associated with higher levels of depressive symptoms. Thirdly, the results showed that electronic media use in bed before sleep was associated with shorter sleep duration and more sleep difficulties. And lastly, in line with their fourth hypothesis, the authors found that the relationship between electronic media use in bed before sleep and depressive symptoms is partly mediated by sleep duration and/or sleep difficulties.
This is troubling because instead of having a good night's sleep, teenagers spend the bulk of the time on their phones, which leaves them tired and irritable in the day time while at school, or, anywhere else. Additionally, a proper night's rest is essential to our overall well-being, without proper sleep we would face many serious health concerns. Interestingly, the researchers found that the electronic media use type that was most strongly associated with sleep disturbances and depressive symptoms, was spending time online (e.g., on Facebook and other social networking sites) while lying in the bed before sleep. This suggests that their presence on social media sites is the number one culprit behind the sleep disturbances and depressive symptoms. As if we needed anymore reasons to question the negative influence of social media.
Depression in teenagers is a severe condition with a high chance of reoccurrence in adulthood. As depression rates are drastically increasing during teenage years, and prevalence rates have also been increasing in the past few decades, it is important to offer ways to prevent depression during adolescence.
The authors recommend the following: As electronic media use before sleep is related to sleep disturbance and depressive symptoms, many teenagers might benefit from improved sleep hygiene by reducing their electronic media use before and at bedtime. They suggest that sleep hygiene education for teenagers be taught in classrooms and parents be informed of the risk and possible ways to reduce teenagers’ electronic media use at night. In addition to sleep hygiene education, the authors recommend that programmers could include specific applications on smartphones that encourage teenagers’ to maintain proper sleep hygiene. For example, it could track the time when teenagers use their smartphones, at what time there is noise in their bedroom, at what time they go to sleep and when they get up, as well as provide reminders when sleep hygiene rules are not followed. Lastly, the authors recommend that school psychologists identify teenagers suffering from excessive electronic media use and a sleep disorder, and referred to treatment, as there is growing evidence that maintaining regular sleep patterns could reduce the occurrence of depression in teenagers.
Mental health related illnesses are often overlooked, particularly in teenagers, if there is a way to improve anyone's mental well-being, I believe it is in our right to do so.
Lemola, S., Perkinson-Gloor, N., Brand, S., Dewald-Kaufmann, J. F., & Grob, A. (2014). Adolescents’ electronic media use at night, sleep disturbance, and depressive symptoms in the smartphone age. Journal of youth and adolescence, 1-14.
National Sleep Foundation. (2011). Sleep in America poll. Exploring connections with communications technology use and sleep. National Sleep Foundation: Washington, DC