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Joseph (not his real name)
Is tech influencing the way we sleep?
I know how important it is to have a healthy sleep pattern. I’ve sat through five PSHE sessions about it. These always follow the same format: a teacher stands at the front and talks through a Powerpoint. Usually they rattle off a few vague facts about how your brain retains information when you sleep and how teenagers need more sleep because our brains are growing. At this point there’s probably some link in the Powerpoint to a YouTube video that the teacher spends five minutes trying to work, while the class talk among themselves about Love Island. Eventually they give up and try salvaging things with a group discussion. Suggestions are made, like getting an early night or setting some kind of regular routine for sleeping and waking, but the debate always fizzles out until it’s a conversation between the teacher and one really keen girl in the front row. Eventually, to everyone’s relief, the bell goes, and it’s all over.
Learning about sleep like this is a bit like learning ‘study skills’. It’s all obvious stuff. We know that sleep is valuable because being tired feels so bad. The fact that someone has written it all down can feel like a waste of time. Even so, you do sit there thinking “Yeah, I probably should stop watching YouTube videos of people falling out of canoes until three in the morning. Maybe I’ll even remove screens from the bedroom, or make a big neat sleep timetable and stick it up on my wall.” Then the lesson ends and you never think about any of it again. I can’t think of a single one of my friends who actually follows that ideal routine dreamt up in PSHE HQ. I don’t think that’s anything new, or specific to my generation. Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure technology is changing the way we relate to sleep, the same as it’s changing the way we relate to food and sex and everything else, but I don’t think that before the LCD screen was invented every teenager wanted to go to bed when they were told. That’s probably something more to do with being a teenager, maybe with wanting to feel like an adult. I think a generation of kids that went to bed at bedtime would make a dull generation of adults.
Most nights I get to sleep around 12. I think that’s pretty good, really. If I’m in bed by 10:30 then that’s only an hour and a half of mindless internet consumption before I settle down. OK, it’s probably not great (especially when it’s tagged on to the much bigger number of daily hours of logged on). But it’s OK compared to the 4am guilt when you realise you’ve ruined tomorrow because you wanted to watch a video titled “Microwave microwaving a microwave microwaving a toaster” or “Giant African Bullfrogs eat everything in sight (including mice)”. These nights come around now and then, and the mornings are bad, but never as bad as you think they’re going to be, and never bad enough to stop it happening again. It does make me wonder about what kind of dark patterns developers weave into the design of these websites that make it so easy to slip down a virtual rabbit hole. Lots of apps, especially mobile games, purposely obscure the time on your phone while you play. Someone on Reddit compared it to casinos having no clocks or windows. I think that’s quite scary: malevolent little pocket casinos keeping us awake.
There is a flip side of tech, though, when it comes to sleep: apps like Sleep Cycle are designed to monitor you throughout the night and others like Headspace teach mindfulness and meditation to calm you down and nurture your mental health. There’s even a whole section of YouTube dedicated to “Relaxing sleep whale noises”. Some people swear by Headspace, but I’m weary of the sleep-positive tech revolution. I think no matter how attached we are to our phones, these kinds of changes still have to come from us. If you want to sleep more, you just have to sleep more. No one can really help you do that.
Of course there are other reasons to lose sleep. Sometimes work gets in the way, deadlines sneak up on you. I’ve never had much of a problem with this. There’s been the odd essay that’s kept me up late, but generally speaking I seem to lose any work-based motivation after 2am. I do have friends who do that thing that everyone tells you not to do, revising through the night. I don’t know if it works for them. To be fair, they are all pretty successful academically. A bit manic, but basically fine. Then, obviously, there’s going out. There’s probably nothing new to say here: drugs and alcohol and dancing are all quite draining, but probably a healthy way for young people to let off steam every now and then. Especially when teenagers are under so much pressure at school that some of them stay up all night revising. I don’t think you can say one thing is less healthy than the other.
At the end of the day, I think this all comes down to a question of what is natural. Apparently there’s a wealth of data suggesting teenagers need to sleep more than they do. There are plenty of things that are contextually specific to my generation, things like growing up with the internet, and having information and entertainment on tap 24/7, but there are also things that are just specific to being a teenager. Personally, I think developing a healthy sleep pattern is more about growing up than anything else.
Dr Pooky Knightsmith
Dr Knightsmith has a PhD in child mental health from the Institute of Psychiatry, and is the current Vice-Chair of the Children and Young People’s Mental Health Coalition.
How to sleep more and better
Sleep is important to emotional wellbeing and academic performance. Teenagers need between nine and ten hours of sleep a night – more than any age group apart from the under-fives. Most UK teens actually get less than eight hours a night, making them chronically sleep-deprived.
This can lead to:
- Difficulty concentrating in class.
- Memory impairment.
- Shortened attention span (all the above can lead to reduced academic performance).
- Poor decision-making.
- Risk-taking behaviour.
- Lack of enthusiasm.
- Moodiness, or sustained low mood.
- Slower physical reflexes and reduced sporting performance.
- Taking time off school.
There are some simple things you can do to get better sleep:
When it feels like there aren’t enough hours in the day, it can be hard to make sure you sleep properly. It could help to look at your weekly schedule - perhaps with a parent or teacher if that helps - and honestly consider whether you’re trying to fit too much in. Overcommitment to study, sport or social activities can eat away at sleep. In the long run, you’re going to be better off academically going to bed on time rather than staying up really late doing homework. Studies have shown that even an additional half an hour a day can have a direct impact on wellbeing and achievement. Think about what you could do less of to make that happen.
Routine, routine, routine
We can help by ensuring that our bodies are primed to sleep at bedtime. You can improve the likelihood of falling asleep quickly and deeply by:
Having a regular bedtime and a regular time to get up (not sleeping until lunchtime at the weekend).
Having a relaxing bedtime-routine – many people find a warm drink, a bath or calming activities such as reading or yoga are helpful.
Avoiding stimulation in the form of study, sport or caffeine for at least an hour before bedtime. The evidence is not completely clear-cut, but screens immediately before trying to go to sleep are increasingly believed to be a bad idea: the blue light emitted by electronic devices is thought to stimulate alertness and reduce the production of melatonin, making it more likely that you’ll be hot in the night, and wake up more often. Remember, caffeine isn’t just in coffee and tea, but also chocolate.
Creating a good space for sleep
A good sleeping environment can also help us to sleep more quickly and more soundly. Things to consider include:
- A comfortable bed with bedding suited to the time of year.
- A room at the right temperature.
- A room that is dark enough (but lets light in when it’s time to get up).
- Quiet – use earplugs if needed.
Encourage the association between the bedroom and sleeping by carrying out other activities (studying, chatting to friends) elsewhere. Where this is not possible, the next best thing might be to create separate ‘zones’ in the room for studying or chatting to friends, reserving the bed for sleeping.
Sleep vs study
It’s tempting to think that studying late will improve your academic performance - but it’s not true when study eats into sleep time or results in an overstimulated brain and you can’t settle down to sleep. Simple steps to take include:
- Remember that studying becomes counterproductive when it comes at the expense of sleep.
- Schedule your work for earlier in the evening/day.
- Set yourself study limits if you need them.
Many teens (and, let’s face it, older people) find it hard to switch off from the online world at night. Ideally, you should be offline for at least ten hours a night. Some experts recommend switching off for two hours before you go to bed.
If this seems impossible at this point, you could start by trying:
- Turning devices onto ‘do not disturb’ for certain hours of the night, and always when you’re asleep.
- Making a point of finishing and logging out of online conversations before going to sleep.
- Not sleeping in arms’ reach of online devices.
- A half-hour offline period at the start and end of each day.
- Keeping chargers outside the bedroom so you have to go to bed without your devices.
There are many reasons that people struggle to sleep. Some simple strategies that can help include:
- Keeping a notebook by the bed to note down any worries or things-to-do that come into your mind so you can deal with them in the morning.
- Listening to soothing music or practising mindfulness or steady breathing.
- Getting up for half an hour and doing something not too stimulating such as reading. When we really can’t sleep, we need to avoid rewiring our brains to associate being in bed with wakefulness by lying staring at the ceiling and worrying.
When to seek support
Issues such as anxiety and depression can lead to difficulties sleeping. Difficulty sleeping can equally exacerbate these issues. If you’re concerned that this may be at the root of your sleeplessness, ask your GP about support and treatment.
Mental Health Foundation – How to Sleep Better
Sleepio – an organisation that aims to help people sleep better
i ‘Teenagers and Sleep’, Victoria State Government, Better Health Initiative
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