Cell Phones Keeping Teens Up at Night

By Hugh C. McBride

Anyone who has watched a teenager text-messaging his way through a family dinner – or has swerved to avoid a phone-distracted young driver – knows that mobile communication devices have had a dramatic effect on the way teens lead their lives. But a study by a Swedish sleep expert indicates that for some youth, the influence of cell phones extends beyond the waking hours.

According to Gaby Badre, M.D., Ph.D., teens who use their cell phones in excess are more likely to experience sleep disruptions, restlessness, stress, and fatigue than are peers who limit their phone time. Badre, who teaches at Sahlgren’s Academy in Gothenburg, Sweden, revealed the results of his research during a June 9, 2008 presentation at Sleep 2008, the 22nd annual meeting of the Associated Professional Sleep Societies.

“It is adamant/necessary to increase the awareness among youngsters of the negative effects of excessive mobile phone use on their sleep-wake patterns, with serious health risks as well as attention and cognitive problems,” Badre said in a press release that was posted on the Sleep 2008 website.

About The Study
Badre’s research involved 21 healthy subjects between the ages of 14 and 20 who did not exhibit symptoms of any sleep disorders prior to their involvement in the study. As the APSS release described it, the study was conducted in the following manner:

  • The control group consisted of three men and seven women who each made fewer than five phone calls and sent fewer than five text messages each day.
  • The experimental group was comprised of three men and eight women, each of whom made more than 15 calls and sent 15 text messages or more every day.
  • When questioned about their lifestyle and sleep habits, the members of the experimental (high use) group reported heightened states of restlessness, increases in their consumption of energy drinks, problems falling and staying asleep, and greater degrees of stress and fatigue.

An article on the HealthDay website quotes Badre as saying he was “quite surprised” about the strong association between phone use and sleep-related problems. “The message is that adolescents who use their cell phones excessively are much more stressed, much more restless, much more fatigued, and have a greater tendency to develop sleep deprivation as a result of their calling habits,” Badre told HealthDay reporter Alan Mozes.

Additional Research
Badre’s study was not the first research into the relationship between cell phones and sleep. On Jan. 21, 2008, the BBC News website reported on a joint effort by researchers at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden and Wayne State University in Detroit, Mich., to evaluate the degree to which radiation that is emitted from cell phone handsets can interfere with brain functions.

The Karolinska-Wayne State study involved 71 men and women between the ages of 18 and 45. Some of the subjects were exposed to radiation equivalent to that from a typical cell phone, while others were placed in identical situations but not exposed to the radiation. According to the BBC, “Those exposed to radiation took longer to enter the first of the deeper stages of sleep, and spent less time in the deepest one.”

Bengt Arnet, one of the leaders of the study, told the news service that his team’s research “strongly suggests that mobile phone use is associated with specific changes in the areas of the brain responsible for activating and coordinating the stress system.”

The Effects of Insomnia
Though a direct cause-effect relationship between cell phone use and diminished sleep has yet to be conclusively established, experts have long been aware of the negative impacts of insomnia and sleep deprivation:

  • Information provided by the Mayo Clinic indicates that insomnia has been associated with a range of mental conditions, including depression, anxiety, and diminished problem-solving and decision-making capabilities.
  • The Sleep Deprivation website notes that the condition can lead to or increase the severity of heart disease and hypertension, while groups including the American Academy of Sleep Medicine have linked poor sleep with an increased likelihood of stroke and obesity.
  • To emphasize the necessity of its “Wake Up and Get Some Sleep” program, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration notes that sleep-deprived drivers are responsible for more than 100,000 crashes (which cause 40,000 injuries and 1,550 deaths) each year in the United States.

The effects of sleep deprivation can be particularly pronounced in the developing bodies of younger people. As sleep expert James B. Mass, Ph.D., of Cornell University told the American Psychological Association’s Monitor on Psychology, “Almost all teen-agers, as they reach puberty, become walking zombies because they are getting far too little sleep.”

How To Get A Good Night’s Sleep
The American Academy of Sleep Medicine and the National Sleep Foundation have posted the following tips to help teens avoid the damage that is associated with not getting enough sleep:

  • Be consistent – go to bed and get up at the same time every day (even on weekends and vacation days).
  • Establish a relaxing routine and a soothing setting to help ease yourself to sleep.
  • Make your bedroom quiet, dark, and a little bit cool.
  • Don’t drink caffeinated beverages or take medicines that contain stimulants prior to going to bed.
  • Don’t go to bed hungry, but don’t eat a big meal right before bedtime, either. As is the case in many health-related situations, “moderation” is an important word to remember here.
  • Avoid exercise or other rigorous physical activity within six hours of going to bed.
  • Don’t stay up too late to “cram” for tests, do homework, or participate in other activities. If after-school commitments are proving to be too time-consuming, consider cutting back for the good of your health.
  • Keep computers and televisions out of the bedroom – or, at the very least, turn them off before getting into bed.
  • Get a full night’s sleep every night. (For teens, this means about nine hours and 15 minutes of uninterrupted shuteye.)

Individuals who believe they may be suffering from a sleep disorder (for example, insomnia, narcolepsy, or sleep apnea) are advised to bring this matter to their physician’s attention.

 For many families, though, the first step toward better sleep may involve convincing the children to turn off their computers and put down their cell phones. As the National Sleep Foundation’s Amy Wolfson told WebMD, this may not be as simple as it sounds – but it is essential.

“We live in a very fast-paced society where parents themselves skimp on sleep,” Wolfson said in an Aug. 21, 2000 article by Joyce Friedan. “So it’s hard to expect one’s own son or daughter to shut down the computer or turn the TV off or not call their friends if that’s the family’s lifestyle. … [But] we need to take into account the fact that [teens] need time to take care of their bodies.”

Government Wants More Studies on Effect of Cell Phone Exposure
The U.S. National Research Council is recommending more study on the effects of cell phone use on the health of young people and pregnant women.

Most research so far has looked at only short-term effects of cell phone use; however, some studies have linked using the phones to developing brain tumors.

Some of the Council’s scientists believe that children and teens may be more susceptible to exposure to radio frequency energies because they are still developing, and because they begin using the phones at young ages. In addition, smaller people and children take in more RF energy than average adults.

The Council, which makes recommendations to Congress and the federal government on matters of science, asked for more research after compiling a report from a meeting of experts in the field.