Nighttime Gadget Use Interferes with Young Adults' Health

Our reluctance to put down our gadgets is increasingly taking a toll on our sleep, and teens and young adults appear to be the groups most affected.

A recent poll by the National Sleep Foundation found that 95 percent of Americans use some form of technology in the hour before they go to bed.Teens and young adults are more likely than older individuals to surf the web, play video games and use their cell phones close to bedtime.

Young people need more sleep than adults in general, and sleep deprivation may interfere with children's learning, memory, physical and mental health and the formation of good sleep habits in the future, experts say.

"The added stimulation of video games or social networking and texting right before bed is probably not helping them get the sleep they need," said Lauren Hale of the Stony Brook University Medical Center in New York.

Sleeping with the cell

The poll found that about 70 percent of those in Generation Z (ages 13 to 18) , and 67 percent of those in Generation Y (ages 19 to 29) , keep phones by their bedside. People who sent text messages in the hour before bed mostly Generation Y and Z'ers were less likely to get a good night's sleep and, among those old enough to drive, more likely to drive drowsy.

In addition, 9 percent of Generation Z'ers said their phone woke them up almost every night with a text message, phone call or email. About 20 percent of Generation Y'ers said this happened a few nights a week.

Insufficient sleep in children is linked with poor academic performance, tardiness at school, motor vehicle accidents and depressed mood, said Amy Wolfson, an expert on adolescent sleep at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass.

There is also growing evidence tying lack of sleep to obesity in adolescents, Hale said.

Good sleep habits

Technology may have a greater influence on the long-term sleep habits of young people than their elders because they haven't yet established good sleeping habits, Wolfson said. Previous studies have shown that young adulthood is the time when lifelong sleeping habits are established, she said.

"They become accustomed to thinking that's the way to fall asleep and maintain sleep," Wolfson said.

But there is still hope. It's possible younger generations adjust and avoid ending up as technology-addicted zombies.

"Perhaps younger people may become more resilient and able to adapt to the widespread use of technology before bedtime without it affecting their adult sleep patterns," Hale said.

Passive vs. interactive technology

Research led by Michael Gradisar of Flinders University in Australia has found interactive technology, such as social media websites or video games, and passive technologies, such as TVs or MP3 players, affect the brain differently. Interactive technologies make a person more alert and disrupt the onset of sleep, Gradisar said.

Exactly why such activities as playing a video game arouse the brain more than, say, watching a DVD, is not completely understood. Gradisar said it could be that video games require continuous responses to stimuli, while passive technologies do not. Or it could be that interactive technologies, such as social networking on your cell phone , involve more emotion.

If interactive technologies are more likely to keep you awake, the younger generations could be in trouble. Generation Y and Z'ers were twice as likely as Generation X'ers and Baby Boomers to say they'd played a video game in the hour before going to bed a few nights a week.

So far, research has shown the effects of video games on sleep to be relatively mild, Gradisar said. "We suspect now that regular gamers may respond differently than casual gamers, in that regular gamers may have desensitized to the effects one would expect from video-gaming," Gradisar told MyHealthNewsDaily.

Setting rules

To establish good sleep habits in their children, parents might want to set rules regarding technology use, such as leaving cell phones in the kitchen at night and taking gaming systems and TVs out of the bedroom, Wolfson said. And young adults may want to set such rules for themselves.

Turning off the tech well before bedtime may help in the development of good sleep habits, Hale said.

"You want to create a sleep sanctuary," Wolfson said.

Pass it on: Technology is increasingly finding its way into American bedrooms and disrupting sleep, and young people may suffer the most from the trend.

Follow MyHealthNewsDaily staff writer Rachael Rettner on Twitter @RachaelRettner.

Rachael Rettner

Rachael is a Live Science contributor, and was a former channel editor and senior writer for Live Science between 2010 and 2022. She has a master's degree in journalism from New York University's Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program. She also holds a B.S. in molecular biology and an M.S. in biology from the University of California, San Diego. Her work has appeared in Scienceline, The Washington Post and Scientific American.