Teens, sleep, and social media [Guest Post]

Sleep. It’s something most of us ironically daydream about more often than actually get.  We are all guilty of it at one time or another; deterring Mr. Sandman for a few more minutes of Facetime. Or perhaps another necessary Facebook post or response. We push ourselves to stay awake and tell ourselves that just a few more minutes on the phone or our tablet in the dark won’t do any harm.  But that’s where we are wrong. 

Since the development of social media, America’s hunger for everything bigger, better, faster has intensified.  Our patience has grown more limited, and so has our children’s.  When I was a child, I would occasionally sneak a flashlight to finish reading my favorite novel.  Things have changed, especially for today’s teenage population.  The image of finding a child under a blanket with a flashlight is long gone.  Phones, computers, iPods, and tablets have replaced it. So what’s the difference you may ask?  What’s the harm? Social_media_at_night

Being a licensed sleep professional for the past decade has shed some light on this topic for me. Many parents don’t realize the effect a few more “harmless” minutes of social media can have on their child. A few minutes may easily turn into a few more hours.

Adolescents already have the challenges of employment opportunities, an increase in academic challenges and a decrease in their parent’s control, all of which can contribute to keeping an adolescent up at night. On top of that, social challenges are at the top of an adolescent’s radar, and with the development of social media, this challenge has greatly intensified.

Even without these challenges, adolescents already have strange sleep patterns. Many of us can remember wanting to stay up later at night and sleep much later in the morning.  That’s because the adolescent brain and body are undergoing so many changes, especially hormonally. So for adolescents, who already have disturbed sleep patterns, and are dealing with normal adolescent challenges, stimulants (for example, social media) before bed can only exacerbate the problem.

Stimulants before bed simply do not aid in a healthy night of sleep. When most people think of stimulants, they think of something like coffee, but light is actually the strongest natural stimulant of the body.  In short, every mammal’s circadian rhythm tells it when to get tired and when to wake up.  This is why most people wind down after sundown and start to wake up after the sun rises. This is also why it has been recommended to not sleep with the TV on.  The stimuli from the light affects the eyes (even when shut) which in turn affects the brain and can cause too many arousals during sleep.

Social media adds interaction to the brain on top of light exposure.   Adolescents are confusing in many senses of the word, especially hormonally, which is in part why their sleep patterns seem so unpredictable.  They want and feel the need to express themselves.  With social media, they can do this around the clock without judgment or criticism.  Therefore they will and do push themselves to be more socially expressive and put sleep on the back burner. 

So what can one do to aid the child’s sleep hygiene?  Start by cutting out all social media two hours before their bedtime.   According to the National Sleep Foundation, a teenager (age 10-17) needs 8.5 – 9.25 hours of sleep per night.  I regularly have patients in the sleep lab whose parents say they cannot figure out why their children can’t sleep.  When asked if the child sleeps with the TV on, they answer, “Yes.” In the sleep lab, I don’t let them fall asleep to the TV and what do you know?  They are asleep within minutes and they sleep throughout the night. Social media can have the same effect as a TV before bed, especially if the child is sleeping with or near their phone, and can continually use and respond to social media sites while trying to fall asleep.

Adolescents aren’t likely to understand or appreciate social media being cut out before bed.Parents may not always be able to cut it out entirely, but this will keep kids more alert during the day and help them to focus more clearly, which will, in turn, allow them to work more effectively, achieve better grades, and improve behaviorally in many circumstances. 

Trying to mold a healthy adult out of a ragingly hormonal teenager is difficult enough for all involved, and puberty is certainly an ocean you couldn’t pay me to navigate again.  With all of life’s challenges today, sleep is more important than ever.  Spending a few moments getting a teen to put away their social media devices today might just save a bit of their tonight and their tomorrow.

About the author

Shawna_FettermanShawna Fetterman, RPSGT, has served as a licensed sleep therapist for over 10 years and has seen first hand the impact technology and social media have on teens and their sleep habits.