Are you or your teenagers addicted to your smartphone? Do you argue about the presence of phones at mealtimes? Do your youngsters sleep with their phones in their room? A ubiquitous accessory nowadays, it is so easy to fall into the trap of constantly checking our phones for news and messages at all times of day and night. This obsession, however, to always have our phone nearby is reaching epidemic proportions among our youngsters in particular and seriously affecting their mental health.
Dr Martin Lee is a Consultant Rheumatologist and Associate Senior Clinical Lecturer currently working for Newcastle-Upon-Tyne Hospitals and Newcastle University. He has a specialist interest in Young Adult and Adolescent care and created the concept of No Phone Zone in 2016 based on his reflections that the overuse of smartphones (particularly at bedtime and during the night) was having negative effects on his patients’ sleep hygiene, mental and physical wellbeing, interpersonal relationships, productivity and online safety.
Here Martin shares his thoughts and findings - it is serious food for thought as we move further into an age of increased smartphone usage.
The Importance of Sleep Hygiene and the Potential Effects Of Smartphone Overuse Syndrome (SOS) In Teenagers
Smartphones have fundamentally changed how we live and their functionality has had many positive impacts on our lives. The invention and rapid evolution of smartphones now means that access to the internet, social media sites and a multitude of applications is rarely more than an arm’s length away, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. However, are there potential downsides to this technology that could be having a negative impact within our homes and on our lives?
Smartphone Overuse Syndrome (SOS)?
As a consultant physician working in the UK with an interest in adolescent and young adult care, I witness first hand potential negative consequences of mobile phone technology almost on a day-to-day basis. I believe that smartphone overuse has the potential to hinder relationships within our families and also have a negative effect on our own, and our children’s, sleep patterns and mental health.
Teenagers are frequently referred to my clinic complaining of chronic fatigue, daytime sleepiness, pain and headaches. These symptoms are frequently accompanied by symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome, low mood and feelings of anxiety. When taking a history from these teenagers, a key and recurrent theme is frequent access to the internet and social media, often using smartphone technology and often at night.
Trends in smartphone use in Teenagers (parents look away now!):
Over the past decade there has been a huge increase in electronic media use in teenagers. In 2010 a survey of over 2,000 American youths aged 8 to 18 found that they spent an average of 7.5 hours a day using entertainment media.
With the increased availability (and reduced costs) of smartphone technology, there has been a rapid increase in both smartphone ownership and smartphone use among teenagers. A recent study found that American college students spent nearly 9 hours a day on their mobile phones!
In 2016, Deloitte published its UK mobile consumer survey. Key findings of this report include the fact that about 91% of 18-44 year olds in the UK own a smartphone. Nighttime smartphone usage was particularly high in the teenage population and about half of all 18-24 year olds check their phone in the middle of the night.
The Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference (HMC) in partnership with Digital Awareness UK (DAUK) recently conducted a published a survey of 2,750 pupils aged 11-18, looking into teenage use of mobile devices overnight and the impact this is having on their health and well-being. The survey revealed that almost half (45%) of teenagers checked their mobile devices during the night. Of these teenagers, 23% checked their mobile device more than 10 times per night. Other findings of the survey included the facts that 68% of teenagers said that using their mobile devices at night affected their schoolwork.
Smartphone use and sleep:
Alongside increases in smartphone ownership and use in teenagers, recent data also suggests a shift towards poorer sleep patterns over the past decades. These changes include going to bed later, taking longer to fall asleep, shorter sleep duration, poorer sleep quality and excessive daytime sleepiness. Several other studies have demonstrated a relationship between mobile phone use at night and shorter sleep duration or increased daytime sleepiness. There are 4 key reasons why smartphone use in evenings and at bedtime could potentially have a negative impact on sleep quantity and quality.
- Sleep stealing (sleep can potentially be displaced by smartphone use at night leaving less time for sleep).
- Smartphone use at bedtime can lead to increased mental, emotional or physiological arousal and therefore interfere with time to onset of sleep.
- Light emission from smartphones that use LED technology (‘blue-range’ light) may disrupt our sleep by interfering with our body’s melatonin secretion and its in-built 24-hour clock.
- Smartphones left switched on at night can disturb sleep and reduce the quantity and quality of deep or ‘restorative’ sleep.
Smartphone use and mental health disorders in teenagers:
It is well known that there is an association between depression and sleep disturbance but studies have also found that sleep disturbance can lead to depression in teenagers. One study of over 17,000 adolescents published in 2012 reported an association between nighttime mobile phone use and poor mental health, suicidal feelings and self-harm. A further study of over 300 teenagers published in 2015 found that smartphone use in bed before sleep was related to shorter sleep duration and higher levels of depressive symptoms.
There is overwhelming evidence demonstrating that teenagers are using smartphones more and more and that smartphone use at night can have a negative affect on sleep and mental health. I believe teenagers and their families should be educated about sleep hygiene and the potential effects of smartphone use at bedtime and at night. This education should include advice about setting limits on smartphone use or introducing phone free areas of the home or times of the day.
Martin's passion and commitment for pioneering a change in the way families manage their smartphone usage is heartfelt. He truly wants to make a difference.
It is an unspoken rule in our house that phones are banned at mealtimes as this is when we come together as a family. Equally iPhones and iPads are left in our home office over night, but for an 18 year old sometimes the temptation can be too great to have it close by. Interestingly, however, my son has been strict with himself during the exam period and of his own volition has been switching off his devices an hour before going to bed.
The result? Well no teenager likes to admit their parents know best but he has delighted in the fact that he is sleeping better, waking earlier and is less lethargic. Whether he continues it full-time beyond the exams remains to be seen but for now we are all enjoying reaping the benefits.
Are you worried about your tweens or teens and their smartphone usage? Do you have any rules in your home regarding smartphone usage? Did you find Martin's piece helpful? I would love to hear your views.
Editor's Note: This is not a sponsored post. I invited Martin to share his expertise from personal interest.