Scrolling into Slumber: The impact of electronic device usage on sleep

March 10-16 was national Sleep Awareness Week, and it got us thinking about the importance of a good bedtime routine for students, whose minds are rapidly developing and who need many hours of restorative, high-quality sleep every night. Longitudinal studies of adolescents have shown a clear correlation between late night phone or tablet use and poor sleep, which in turn can lead to a host of physical and psychological health problems. It makes sense: as users are laying in bed scrolling through feeds or playing games, not only do they miss out on sleep during that time and disrupt their circadian rhythm, but they are also increasing brain activity, blue light exposure, and possibly anxiety and depression. This, in turn, makes it even more difficult to sleep, so they stay online longer, and the insomniac cycle repeats itself. (Other studies have also found that adolescents who use social media also wake up earlier, again robbing them of much needed slumber.)

At a recent FAA webinar led by Max Stossel, he shared data revealing the correlation between social media use and poorer test scores, adding academic consequences to the long list of negative effects of social media. Again, it’s no surprise. Students who sleep less, and are more distracted and anxious, are bound to struggle more under academic pressure. Of course, there are many other factors that affect this correlation, such as parent involvement and the child’s gender, but it was clear that students who used apps like Snapchat and X less frequently got higher test scores. Simply having a phone in the bedroom at night – even if not actively using it for social media – can have a harmful effect on sleep and, subsequently, academics. Audible and visible notifications, alerts and vibrations, distracting games, and the disruptive light emitted by phones all play a part in inhibiting sound sleep.

Restricting phone usage cannot solve every problem, and some studies point out that we need a more nuanced understanding of types of social media and electronic device use: for some adolescents, limiting time on the phone cannot fully negate the effects of problematic usage habits on their mental and physical health and sleep quality. Guidelines for a healthy bedtime routine (which we ought to model ourselves) should incorporate a technology curfew during the hour or so before lights-out … but this should also be accompanied by earnest discussions with our children about their usage of these devices and the effects they have on sleep and overall well-being. As children grow older, they will begin to take more responsibility and ownership of their habits, and arming them with pertinent information sets them up to make better decisions on their own. 

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