Americans aren’t getting enough sleep, and technology may be the culprit.
In the National Sleep Foundation’s 2011 Sleep in America poll, out today, 95% of the 1,508 people surveyed reported using some type of electronic device â€” such as a TV, computer, video game or cellphone â€” within an hour of bedtime at least a few nights a week.
All these devices can affect the quality of sleep, says Lauren Hale, associate professor of preventive medicine at Stony Brook (N.Y.) University School of Medicine, one of the researchers involved in the study.
“Communication technologies are often light-emitting, which can suppress the sleep-promoting hormone melatonin and make it harder to go to sleep at night.” Both the light and alert sounds from such devices can interfere with falling asleep and staying asleep, she says.
“The hypothesis is that more active technologies are worse for sleep because of the psychological effect of being stimulated at night,” Hale says. “When you turn on the TV or game, it may be easier to fall into the trap of doing it for longer than you had imagined,” so Americans end up substituting technology use for sleep time.
Watching TV is the most popular distraction for all ages: Two-thirds of respondents ages 30-64 and half of those ages 13-29 watch television every night or almost every night in the hour before going to sleep.
About 61% of those surveyed also reported using their laptops or computers at least a few nights a week within that hour, and about half of young people ages 13-29 surf the Internet every night or almost every night before bedtime (55% of those ages 13-18 and 47% of those ages 19-29).
Nighttime cellphone use is also common among young people: 56% of 13- to 18-year-olds and 42% of 19- to 29-year-olds said they read, send or receive text messages every night or almost every night.
About one in five said they are awakened after going to bed at least a few nights a week by a phone call, text message or e-mail.
Hale suggests turning off cellphones at night, and if you use your phone’s alarm function to wake up in the morning, “it may be better for your sleep to use an alarm clock that doesn’t have other functions so you don’t get disturbed by a cellphone going off next to your bed.”
Those who use a cellphone right before trying to go to sleep reported they were less likely to get a good night’s sleep, more likely to wake up feeling unrefreshed, more likely to feel “sleepy,” and more likely to drive while drowsy. In the survey, 37% said they drive while drowsy at least once a month.
Drowsiness contributes to an estimated 100,000 motor vehicle crashes and about 1,500 deaths a year, says the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Overall, teens ages 13-18 reported the most sleepiness (22%), followed by adults ages 19-29 (16%). Of those ages 30-65, it’s about 10%. Most respondents said they need about 7Â½ hours of sleep to be at their best but reported getting an average of six hours, 55 minutes.
For 13- to 18-year-olds, the average reported is seven hours and 26 minutes on weeknights, much less than the nine to 10 hours a night Hale recommends.
“Sleep is important for learning, interpersonal relationships, and health outcomes,” she says. “If we’re starting 13-year-olds on trajectories of insufficient sleep, how are they supposed to develop their potential in high school if every night they’re not getting enough sleep?”
Cardiologist Virend Somers of the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., says a lack of sleep may have serious health consequences for young people.
Somers notes that young Americans are not only experiencing a chronic lack of sleep but also are trading sleep time for sedentary activities, rather than exercise. While young people may be able to handle it now, he says, “I’m afraid that as they get older their regulatory body mechanisms may be less able to compensate for the lack of sleep.”
Chronic insufficient sleep can result in problems with weight control, diabetes, higher blood pressure and longer-term consequences such as a heart attack or stroke, he says. “In 30 years this generation is going to be the one needing medical care.”
Though it’s too early to say one causes the other, it is clear that younger populations are using more interactive technology at bedtime, and they are the same group reporting worse sleep.
Says Hale, “If this is something adolescents are doing and continue to do, it could really affect the future of sleep.”
Tips to sleep tight, and longer
For a better night’s sleep:â€¢Set and stick to a sleep schedule. â€¢Expose yourself to bright light in the morning and avoid it at night. â€¢Exercise regularly. â€¢Establish a relaxing bedtime routine;. â€¢Create a cool, comfortable sleeping environment free of distractions. â€¢Avoid large meals or beverages (especially caffeine and alcohol) before bed. â€¢No late-afternoon or evening naps, unless you work nights.
Source: National Sleep Foundation