Every year since 2002, the National Sleep Foundation conducts a “Sleep in America” poll. The topics vary every year. In 2011, NSF focused exclusively on the things we do in our bedrooms (you know, besides sleep). Data from that poll continue to generate insights into how we sleep, or don’t sleep as the case may be. In 2016, investigators pulled data from the “Bedroom Poll”, looking at adolescent technology use and how it affected their sleep. The result? Cell phones cause sleep problems.
This study looked at data from 259 kids aged 13-21 years. Investigators asked the teens when they went to bed and how long they slept. They were particularly interested in the kids’ own assessment of how tired they were during the day, and whether they believed they were getting “adequate” amounts of sleep at night. Finally, all these data were compared to the amount of time the teens spent doing things on their phones.
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The respondents slept an average of 7.3 ± 1.3 hours. The recommended amount of sleep, according to Nationwide Children’s Hospital, is 9 1/2 hours.
An astoundingly large number of respondents (97%) used some kind of technology before bed. Increased technology use and the frequency of the cell phone waking you up correlated with waking too early, waking unrefreshed, and daytime sleepiness. Teens who said their sleep was “inadequate” had shorter sleep duration, greater technology use before bedtime, feeling unrefreshed on waking, and greater daytime sleepiness than teens reporting “adequate” sleep.
The Conclusion: Cell phones cause sleep problems for teens
I can hear parents of of teenagers reading this thinking to themselves “tell me something I don’t know!” But scientific studies like these, even though they rely on survey data, are important because they give us an idea of the magnitude of the problem.
In this survey, the average teenager got 2 hours less sleep than the recommended 9 1/2 hours. I told my own teenagers about this result and they it surprised them. They guessed the reported number of hours would be less than 7 hours. I reminded them that this was the number the kids reported to adults administering a survey. The real number of hours of sleep may in fact be lower.
Which came first?
Another problem with the study is that it only describes the kids report. The study shows a correlation between cell phone use and bad sleep. It doesn’t tell us anything about causation. In other words, do cell phones cause sleep problems? Or do sleep problems cause kids to stay up and use their phones?
To answer questions like this, we need to perform a controlled trial. We would take this same group of kids and randomly divide them into two groups. One group would keep their cell phones in their bedrooms as they usually do. The other group would leave the phone in another room. At the end of some period of time, say 3 months, we’d ask the kids again about quantity and quality of their sleep.
How do you think a study like this would turn out?