Teens Tech Use and Impact on Sleep

by: Dan Florell, Ph.D.

It was late at night and the room was dark except for the glow of the computer screen. The adolescent boy was hunched over the computer playing just a little more of World of Warcraft before heading to bed.

Thirty minutes later, he logged off the game and laid down in bed. Despite feeling exhausted, he could not seem to fall asleep. It took nearly an hour for him to doze off, only to find his alarm going off a few short hours later.

The situation with the boy happens frequently for many teens. They find themselves struggling to fall asleep at night and then not getting enough sleep. The trend of teens getting poorer sleep has been going on for the past couple of decades.

One of the causes for this trend is the increasing use of various electronic devices by adolescents, particularly when it is close to bedtime. There are a couple of reasons why electronic devices have been singled out for having a negative impact on teen’s sleep.

The first reason is due to the light that is emitted from the devices during the night. The bright light that is emitted sends a signal to the brain that it is still daytime out. This short-circuits the brain’s natural sleep-wake cycle and delays teen’s ability to fall asleep.

The second reason is that the various games, music, and shows that are watched on the devices eats into the time that teens could be sleeping. We have all had the experience of staying up a bit later than we had intended because of getting sucked into a TV show or an exciting game. Multiply that experience over several nights and it is not surprising that many teens appear to be exhausted.

Teens don’t have to be exhausted, as there are several steps that can be taken to improve their quality of sleep. The advice from a couple of decade ago was to not have televisions in the bedroom. While televisions may have been removed, they were replaced by smartphones, tablets, and computers. Almost all teens have at least one electronic device in their bedrooms and many have several. In addition, most teens use those devices less than an hour before they go to bed.

Parents should sit down with their teens and have a discussion about sleep hygiene. Our society often overlooks the impact sleep has on our daily functioning. A lack of sleep can lead to irritability, poor attention, and unhealthy eating. Parents need to make teens aware of how their choices to use electronic devices late at night are impacting them.

While eliminating teen’s use of electronic devices is not a practical solution, a good goal is to have them stop using the devices at least an hour before going to bed. This will give the body some time to get into its’ natural sleep cycle. Put the electronic devices down earlier at night and find out how their sleep improves.

This article was published in the Richmond Register daily Sunday on February 22, 2015

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