Digital device effects have scientists losing sleep

Credit: Takao Goto

By Tanya Harrington

A Cardiff University study has recently been conducted with the purpose of looking into the effects of digital media devices, such as smartphones and laptops, on the sleeping patterns of children and young adults. The study, involving a systematic review of over 20 existing observational sleep studies, found that the risk of inadequate sleep in young people is more than doubled when they have access to one or more screen-based media devices. Considering that 72% of children and 89% of adolescents are thought to use such devices immediately before going to bed, these findings could have parents and teachers losing sleep as well, out of concern for the wellbeing and academic performance of young people.

While it would be easy to assume that the only problem with these devices is that they might keep young people from choosing to fall asleep at a decent time, the reality is that screen-based devices are theorised to impact several aspects of sleep, both before and during the fact. Using a device with a screen before bed can affect how long it takes to fall asleep, even after someone has stopped using it. These devices are also thought to adversely impact the circadian rhythm and levels of physiological alertness during sleep, potentially resulting in a lighter, less restful sleep than someone might usually experience.

This is harmful in several ways – the study notes that there are both short and long-term negative effects of poor sleep on health, including “poor diet, sedentary behavior, obesity, reduced immunity, stunted growth, mental health issues […] and substance abuse.” Although it could seem like a stretch to attribute so many negative effects to late-night device use, the study warns against this view, stating that “the association between media device use and poor sleep outcomes has been under-explored because the speed at which these devices have been developed has outpaced research capabilities.”

Speaking on the study, Dr Ben Carter from Cardiff University School of Medicine said “with the ever growing popularity of portable media devices, such as smartphones and tablets, the problem of poor sleep amongst children is set to get worse.” He added that the best way to encourage young people to develop better sleeping patterns is to employ “an integrated approach involving parents, teachers, and healthcare professionals.”

This study appears to be the first of its kind, with Dr Carter noting that “our study is the first to consolidate results across existing research,” using meta-analysis to draw a conclusion from various studies which involved 125,198 young people overall, in order to provide “further proof of the detrimental effect of media devices on both sleep duration and quality.” As well as the use of media devices, the study also cited “early school start times, and increase in caffeine consumption” as potential factors in diminishing the quality of sleep.

With the emergence of many studies definitively pointing towards a link between the use of digital media devices and poor quality of sleep, hopefully it will soon be possible to pinpoint an exact plan of action that will help young people to better their sleep, and therefore their wellbeing.

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