By | November 12, 2023
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A new study published in Computers in human behavior challenges the conventional wisdom about the negative impact of smartphone use on adolescent sleep. Contrary to expectations, researchers failed to find a clear link between teenagers’ smartphone use before sleep and their sleep outcomes. This suggests that the impact of smartphones on sleep may be more complex than previously thought.

The use of electronic media devices, especially smartphones, has become increasingly common among young people in many parts of the world. Smartphones are unique in that they are often used close to the user’s face and just before sleep. This has led to concerns that smartphone use before bed may disrupt sleep more than other electronic devices such as laptops or tablets. Previous research has shown that insufficient sleep is associated with a variety of negative outcomes, including academic performance, obesity, mental health problems, and more.

While many studies have explored the relationship between smartphone use and adolescent sleep, there have been limitations to the research. Most previous studies have been cross-sectional, making it challenging to establish a causal relationship between smartphone use and sleep problems. Furthermore, these studies often treat smartphone use as a stable behavioral pattern, ignoring the daily variations in sleep and media use patterns.

This study aimed to address these limitations by using an electronic daily diary design and objective measures of smartphone use to examine both between- and within-person associations between adolescent pre-sleep smartphone use and various sleep outcomes.

“Nowadays, many parents share concerns about how smartphones affect their children’s sleep and wonder if they should implement any parenting strategies related to their children’s smartphone use before bedtime,” said study author Michał Tkaczyk, a postdoctoral fellow at the Interdisciplinary Research Team on Internet and Society (@irtis_muni) and Masaryk University.

“Previous research has shown that young people often use smartphones in bed, and they do so more often compared to other portable devices such as laptops or tablets. At the same time, the incidence of sleep problems is increasing among this population, and many link this fact to the use of digital media. Therefore is an adequate understanding of how smartphones disrupt young people’s sleep is particularly important.”

The study included 203 Czech adolescents aged 13 to 17. These participants downloaded a customized mobile application on their smartphones, which collected smartphone logs (including screen status) and administered short surveys for 14 consecutive days.

The study focused on five dimensions of adolescent sleep: sleep time, duration, efficiency, quality, and daily sleepiness. Participants self-reported their sleep outcomes each morning, including sleep onset time, sleep onset latency, sleep duration, subjective sleep quality, and daily sleepiness. Smartphone use before sleep was measured objectively based on screen time within 2 hours before self-reported bedtime. Other covariates such as age, gender, insomnia symptoms, and use of other media devices were also considered.

Contrary to expectations, the researchers found no significant associations between smartphone use before sleep and any of the sleep outcomes at the between-person level. The strongest predictor of sleep outcomes was the presence of insomnia symptoms, which was associated with later sleep onset, longer sleep onset, shorter sleep duration, lower sleep quality, and higher daily sleepiness. Additionally, participants who typically used other media devices before sleep tended to have later sleep onsets and shorter sleep durations.

This suggests that the impact of smartphones on sleep may be more complex than previously thought. Factors such as habituation to smartphone use and physiological adaptations to screen light may play a role in mitigating the potential negative effects.

“We did not find the negative effect of smartphone use two hours before sleep on adolescent sleep,” Tkaczyk told PsyPost. “The findings of our study showed that negative effects on sleep were related to the use of other digital media before bed and not to smartphones. Therefore, parents may consider limiting their children’s media use in the evenings. For example, the National Sleep Foundation recommends turning off electronic devices at least one hour before bedtime.”

At the individual level, the researchers found that on nights when teens used smartphones before bed for longer than they normally did, they actually tended to get more sleep. However, these associations were relatively small.

“Interestingly, our study found that on days when adolescents used smartphones more than usual before bed, they went to bed a little earlier and slept a little longer,” Tkaczyk explained. “In this regard, our study showed that smartphone use before sleep can be the ‘lesser of two evils’ and that smartphones can even act as a sleep aid on some occasions.”

But the study, like all research, contains some caveats.

“It is important to reflect that our study was conducted on a relatively small and not representative sample of Czech teenagers,” Tkaczyk told PsyPost. “While convenience sampling is typical of studies based on intensive longitudinal designs, replication studies are needed to provide further evidence. At the moment, I know of two similar studies, one also recently published and the other soon to be published, which arrived at similar results those in our study.”

“To gain a more complex understanding of whether and how smartphone use affects adolescent sleep, we now need to analytically distinguish between specific uses of smartphones in relation to sleep, for example in terms of different content assessed (passive entertainment vs. exchange of comments) on SNS ). We also need to consider specific response states associated with different uses of smartphones, such as psychological arousal or changes in momentary affect.”

“The difference between our results and some previous research reporting the negative impact of smartphone use on youth can be partly explained by the different methodological approaches,” Tkaczyk explained. “The majority of previous findings were based on survey data. In a typical scenario, at one point in time, participants reported their typical sleep and smartphone usage patterns. In our study, we took a new approach. We used a custom application developed by our research team to collect objective data on how young people use their smartphones for 14 consecutive days.”

“Through the same app every morning, we asked young people who participated in our study to report their sleep last night, evaluate its quality and report their daily sleepiness. We believe that such an approach provides a more valid and accurate picture of young people’s smartphone use and sleep. It also allows to extend current research by taking into account the daily variation in smartphone use and sleep.”

The study, “Are Smartphones Harmful to Adolescent Sleep? An Electronic Diary Study of Smartphone Use and Evening Sleep,” was written by Michał Tkaczyk, David Lacko, Steriani Elavsky, Martin Tancoš and David Smahel

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