by Dr Martin Lee.
Smartphones have fundamentally changed how we live and their functionality has had many positive impacts on our lives. The invention and rapid evolution of smartphones now means that access to the internet, social media sites and a multitude of applications is rarely more than an arm’s length away, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. However, are there potential downsides to this technology that could be having a negative impact within our homes and on our lives?
Smartphone Overuse Syndrome (SOS)?
As a consultant physician working in the UK with an interest in Adolescent and Young Adult care, I witness first hand potential negative consequences of mobile phone technology almost on a day-to-day basis. I believe that smartphone overuse has the potential to hinder relationships within our families and also have a negative effect on our own, and our children’s, sleep patterns and mental and physical health.
Teenagers are frequently referred to my clinic complaining of chronic fatigue, daytime sleepiness, pain and headaches. These symptoms are frequently accompanied by symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome, low mood and feelings of anxiety. When taking a history from these teenagers, a key and recurrent theme is frequent access to the internet and social media, often using smartphone technology and often at night.
Trends in smartphone use in Teenagers
(Parents look away now!)
Over the past decade there has been a huge increase in electronic media use in teenagers. In 2010 a survey of over 2,000 American youths aged 8 to 18 found that they spent an average of 7.5 hours a day using entertainment media.
With the increased availability (and reduced costs) of smartphone technology, there has been a rapid increase in both smartphone ownership and smartphone use amongst teenagers. A recent study found that American college students spent nearly 9 hours a day on their mobile phones!
In 2016, Deloitte published its UK mobile consumer survey. Key findings of this report include the fact that about 91% of 18-44 year olds in the UK own a smartphone. Nighttime smartphone usage was particularly high in the teenage population and about half of all 18-24 year olds check their phone in the middle of the night.
The Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference (HMC) in partnership with Digital Awareness UK (DAUK) recently conducted a published a survey of 2,750 pupils aged 11-18, looking into teenage use of mobile devices overnight and the impact this is having on their health and wellbeing. The survey revealed that almost half (45%) of teenagers checked their mobile devices during the night. Of these teenagers, 23% checked their mobile device more than 10 times per night. Other findings of the survey included the facts that 68% of teenagers said that using their mobile devices at night affected their schoolwork.
Smartphone use and sleep
Alongside increases in smartphone ownership and use in teenagers, recent data also suggests a shift towards poorer sleep patterns over the past decades. These changes include by going to bed later, taking longer to fall asleep, shorter sleep duration, poorer sleep quality and excessive daytime sleepiness. Several other studies have demonstrated a relationship between mobile phone use at night and shorter sleep duration or increased daytime sleepiness. There are 4 key reasons why smartphone use in evenings and at bedtime could potentially have a negative impact on sleep quantity and quality.
- 1. Sleep stealing (sleep can potentially be displaced by smartphone use at night leaving less time for sleep).
- 2. Smartphone use at bedtime can lead to increased mental, emotional or physiological arousal and therefore interfere with time to onset of sleep.
- 3. Light emission from smartphones that use LED technology
- may disrupt our sleep by interfering with our body’s melatonin secretion and its in-built 24-hour clock.
- 4. Smartphones left switched on at night can disturb sleep and reduce the quantity and quality of deep or ‘restorative’ sleep.
Smartphone use and mental health disorders in teenagers
It is well known that there is an association between depression and sleep disturbance but studies have also found that sleep disturbance can lead to depression in teenagers. One study of over 17,000 adolescents published in 2012 reported an association between nighttime mobile phone use and poor mental health, suicidal feelings and self-harm. A further study of over 300 teenagers published in 2015 found that smartphone use in bed before sleep was related to shorter sleep duration and higher levels of depressive symptoms.
There is overwhelming evidence demonstrating that teenagers are using smartphones more and more and that smartphone use at night can have a negative affect on sleep and mental health. I believe teenagers and their families should be educated about sleep hygiene and the potential effects of smartphone use at bedtime and at night. This education should include advice about setting limits on smartphone use through introduction of phone free areas of the home and using a blue light screen protector to reduce blue light.
I believe that there are six key areas that we should be aware of around our own and our children’s use of smartphone technology. These are:
- • Online safety
- • Productivity (at school and at work)
- • Relationships
- • Physical health
- • Mental health
- • Sleep hygiene
About the Author
Dr Martin Lee MB.BCh.BSc(Hons).FRCP(Rheum).PgDipClinEd.FHEA is a Consultant Rheumatologist and Associate Senior Clinical Lecturer currently working for Newcastle-Upon-Tyne Hospitals and Newcastle University. He has a specialist interest in Young Adult and Adolescent care.
For further information visit www.nophonezone.co.uk