Further evidence bedtime social media use is harming teenagers

A new UK study shows that teenagers who spend 3 or more hours engaging in social media are much more likely to sleep late and to have night awakenings, among other poor sleep habits. Poor sleep in this age group is linked to obesity, poor school performance, mental ill-health, and high-risk behavior.

The current research, which appears online in the journal BMJ Open, shows that there is sufficient reason to make firm clinical decisions and influence healthcare policies regarding teenage use of social media, to promote healthy sleep practices in this age group.

Image Credit: Mooremedia / Shutterstock
Image Credit: Mooremedia / Shutterstock

With the sudden and explosive growth of social media use, against a context of already excessive usage of screen-based media, many experts from varying fields have been consistently warning against a backlash from the mental and emotional health areas of adolescence.

The current study aims to strengthen this consensus by providing sound proof that social media overuse is indeed taking a grim toll on the health of teenagers by its impact on their sleep. It has several concrete aims: it isolates the effect of social media use rather than overall screen time; it looks at several types of sleep difficulty to determine which of them is directly related to social media use, and how; and it fits the findings within the framework of current ‘typical’ adolescent social media use rather than on a predefined cut-off time.

The study

The first step the researchers took was to build up a representative picture of what a typical UK teen looks like with respect to social media use and patterns of night sleep. They retrieved data from the UK Millenium Cohort Study, on almost 12,000 adolescents aged 13-15 years. This study has been recording health-related data on a large sample of people born between 2000 and 2002, drawn from various locations over the UK, to make meaningful deductions about health.

They looked at the participants’ self-reported use of social media, as on Facebook, Twitter, Whatsapp, social messaging and social networking sites, on any given day of the week. They also looked at the sleep patterns reported by the participants in reply to questions such as the time they typically fell asleep as well as the time they woke up, on schooldays as well as on free days, the latent period before they fell asleep, and the time or degree of difficulty they felt in returning to sleep after a night waking.

Based on this data the researchers classified the teenagers into five groups:

  • low users who spent less than an hour a day on social media – 34%
  • average users – 1-3 hours a day – 32%
  • high users – 3-5 hours a day – 14%
  • very high users – over 5 hours a day – 21%

In other words, one in five teenagers were very high users, and two-thirds average or low users (less than three hours a day, overall).

Study findings

The current study found a clear connection between abnormal sleep patterns and the amount of social media use on a typical day. To avoid confusion due to other contributing factors such as physical health issues, family background, and psychological problems, the researchers evaluated these factors and compensated for any confounding influence.

Following such adjustments, they found that very high users had a 70% higher chance of falling asleep only after 11 pm on school days, and after midnight on free days, compared to average users.

High and very high users agreed that they were more likely to wake after 8 am on school days compared to average users. Very high users also reported almost 30% more difficulty in sleeping again after a night awakening. When compared to boys, girls spent more time on social media, and they reported lower sleep quality.

On the other hand, when compared to the other groups, the teenagers at lowest risk for late sleeping and late awakening patterns were the low users. Since late sleeping times “predict poorer academic and social outcomes”, according to the researchers, heavy media use is a definite problem on school days. Only 4% of teenagers reported later waking on school days, implying the presence of sleep deprivation on five days out of seven, at least, which negatively affects the body’s physiological clock-driven rhythms.

Implications

The overall pattern fosters the idea that social media use occurs at the cost of sleep. For instance, it could be displacing homework from the normal work time, leaving it to be done late at night and thus delaying bedtime as well as, perhaps, sleep onset. In short, the best sleep comes with the lowest social media use.

The observational study obviously cannot say authoritatively that social media overuse is the cause for poor sleep patterns. For instance, teenagers with poor health or psychological disorders may spend more time on social media, while simultaneously experiencing difficulty with getting to and maintaining sleep. The researchers also point out that they did not ask about the content of the social media or why it was being used, which is a potential limitation of the study.

All the same, the association is clear that the duration of social media use in this age group is linked in some way to deterioration of sleep quality at a time when it is vital in ensuring good health.

Conclusions

The researchers conclude that this research is sufficiently strong to “provide rigorous and meaningful evidence to inform practice and policy to support healthy adolescent sleep and social media use.” Future research is called for to build on this finding and learn more about what social media offers the teenager, how adolescents typically use it, how it benefits them and how it can harm them, and what content is typically conveyed over these media.

Meanwhile, say the researchers, parents and public health policymakers, as well as those dealing with adolescent health, should work on plans and directives that will help this vulnerable age group to better understand how they can “balance online social interactions with an appropriate sleep schedule that allows sufficient sleep on school nights, with benefits for health and educational outcomes.”

Journal reference:

Social media use and adolescent sleep patterns: cross-sectional findings from the UK millennium cohort study. Holly Scott, Stephany M. Biello, and Heather Cleland Woods. BMJ Open http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bmjopen-2019-031161. https://bmjopen.bmj.com/content/9/9/e031161

Dr. Liji Thomas

Written by

Dr. Liji Thomas

Dr. Liji Thomas is an OB-GYN, who graduated from the Government Medical College, University of Calicut, Kerala, in 2001. Liji practiced as a full-time consultant in obstetrics/gynecology in a private hospital for a few years following her graduation. She has counseled hundreds of patients facing issues from pregnancy-related problems and infertility, and has been in charge of over 2,000 deliveries, striving always to achieve a normal delivery rather than operative.

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