There is growing concern among parents and health professionals that text messaging is contributing to sleep deprivation, with teenagers being the most at risk group of being sleep deprived.
Mobile phone ownership amongst children has risen exponentially in the last decade, with around 80% of 12-17 year olds now having their own phones, according to the Pew Research Center, which carried out a recent US survey.
The increase in mobile phone access, as well as phone packages that offer unlimited texting, has meant that our kids have embraced text messaging as one of their favorite ways of communicating. It’s fast, it’s private, it’s ‘free’ and it’s fun!
But does all this messaging come at the price of our children’s health?
Sleep deprived teens
Most experts agree that teenagers are often sleep deprived. During puberty, teenagers’ sleeping patterns naturally shift, meaning that they often stay up later and wake later – if given the choice. The brain’s circadian rhythm system, which regulates sleep and is controlled mainly by melatonin production, engages later at night as the child progresses through adolescence.
Teens who are finding it hard to go to sleep at a reasonable hour are naturally turning to technology to study (sometimes) or keep them entertained (more often than not) during the wee hours. Watching TV, gaming, social media and texting are all common distractions from sleep. Yet these same night owls are still required to get up early in the morning to attend school. This results in a sleep debt that leaves many children underperforming, irritable and glum.
Why sleep matters
Getting enough sleep is essential to children’s health. Sleep is a time when the body grows and the brain rests. Stress levels are reduced and immunity is restored. Lack of sleep can cause severe problems that can become chronic over time – problems such as obesity, high blood pressure, ADHD and behavior problems have all been linked to sleep deprivation.
A lack of sleep has also been found to negatively affect children’s learning. Sleep deprived youngsters are more tired at school than their peers and show poorer academic performance. Experts believe that Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep is the most important time for learning and memory consolidation. When children fall asleep very late, but still have to get up early for school, REM sleep is curtailed and this can affect memory and learning.
Is texting making things worse?
Whilst there are many factors contributing to sleep deprivation, late-night texting seems to be making matters worse.
A 2014 study conducted by the Family Community Health Journal showed that a high proportion of teenagers keep their phones in their bedrooms at night and most don’t switch them off after lights out. A third of teens surveyed said they text after going to bed and 10% admitted that their phones had woken them up in the night.
Teenagers, ever afraid of being left out, are keeping their phones on to stay connected. They don’t want to miss out or be left out. Teens who are dating are even more prolific late-night texters. Fear of missing something is driving youngsters to keep their phones close – no matter what time of day or night. This silent form of communication is easier to hide from parents than a voice call would be and many parents are unaware of late-night texting until they start monitoring their kids’ phones.
The so-called ‘blue light’ emitted from devices is intensified in the dark and therefore delays the release of melatonin, making it harder to fall asleep. Scientists agree that Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep is the most crucial part of our sleep pattern, affecting learning, memory and social adjustment in adolescents. If teenagers aren’t falling asleep when the lights go out, their REM sleep is cut short.
The growing problem of late-night texting has even led to the rise in incidents of ‘sleep texting’, where messages are sent without the sender being (fully) aware that they have done so. This phenomenon, likened by professionals to sleepwalking, can lead to embarrassment the following day!
Whilst all electronic devices are detrimental to children’s sleep if kept on after lights out, mobile phones are especially undesirable, as they are rarely switched off. Even when the TV, game or computer has been put on standby, the cell phone is always ‘on’ – sometimes acting as an alarm clock, but more often acting as a distraction from sleep.
Help your child get more sleep
There are many things you can do to help your child get more sleep. Here are a few suggestions:
- Monitor your child’s phone and text messages. Monitoring is a good way to find out when your child is sending and receiving text messages.
- Set an electronics curfew. Agree a time with your child when all electronic devices will be switched off.
- Don’t allow your child to keep their phones in their bedrooms at night. You could set up a ‘charging area’ – away from the bedroom – where all devices are placed for overnight charging.
- Speak to other parents about when the kids are texting each other and see if you can mutually agree a cut-off time.
- Write a phone usage agreement with your child so that everyone is clear on the rules of owning or using a phone. Add a clause about when the child should not be texting.
- Remind kids that their incoming text messages will still be there in the morning, so they don’t need to worry about being left out.
- Keep the lines of communication open – explain to your child why sleep is important.
Even if kids complain at first about not having access to their phones 24/7, after a few nights of uninterrupted sleep they will likely start to feel more alert, more energized and more equipped to face the day ahead.