Rogers High School sophomore Andre Ramsey knows the pull of the device in his pocket all too well.
“It’s just you keep scrolling, and you maybe get onto a video or something, you watch that, and then you go on to the next one,” said Ramsey, who estimates he spends up to two hours a night in bed scrolling through Snapchat and Instagram on his smartphone. “With social media, they customize it to you. Then you’re just stuck on there.”
Ramsey’s peers, gathered around a table after a Friday morning marketing class last week, all agreed the pull of social media kept them awake well into the nighttime hours, with their devices often taking up real estate on their nightstands or under their pillow when they finally nodded off. It’s a phenomenon that worries Anne Mason, a clinician and researcher at the Washington State University Spokane School of Nursing, who’s seeing more and more teenagers enter her practice seeking help to get a good night’s sleep.
“I was questioning in my mind, should we be giving young people sleeping pills?” Mason said earlier this month from her office at WSU Spokane, where she serves as director of the school’s doctor of nursing practice program. “They’re coming to me saying, ‘I can’t sleep, is there a pill for that?’”
After a brief discussion with the teens in her role as a psychiatric and mental health nurse practitioner, Mason realized the common culprit was the smartphone. Incorporating what she calls “sleep hygiene” into a regular routine, including setting boundaries of device use, avoiding caffeine after noon and sleeping in a cool, dark and quiet room, could help solve the problem without the need for a chemical intervention, she said.
“It’s hard for parents,” Mason said. “I think a lot of parents struggle with, how do I intervene? Is it worth the fight?”
Not only are parents and children potentially squabbling among themselves, but they’re also fighting digital inventions designed to monopolize the user’s attention. Ramsey spoke of “streaks” on Snapchat, a built-in feature that keeps track of whether he’s messaged a particular friend each day and often keeps him up messaging in the evening.
Even the creators of the software that has become ubiquitous in a smartphone user’s everyday life are beginning to recognize the dangers they created. Several tech developers, speaking to The Guardian newspaper in October 2017, said they were walking away from the apps they’d worked on as a result of the potentially addictive design. Loren Brichter, the man responsible for the scrolling load screen that is used by Twitter, Facebook and other social media apps, told the paper he turns off his phone at 7 p.m. and blocks certain websites to avoid the compulsion.
Ramsey’s classmate Caleb Lemon, also a sophomore, began using a smartphone in first grade as a way to stay connected to his parents after school. Lemon said participation in social media on a phone can fight against feelings of isolation and alienation, which have plagued teenagers for generations before computers fit in their pockets.
“It’s a way that you can never stop talking and never have to be by yourself,” Lemon said, to some laughter from his classmates.
But Colton Allen, a junior, agreed with Lemon, though he said those feelings can sometimes create their own problems.
“I also feel like, when people use Snapchat, they have a bad case of this thing I call ‘FOMO,’ or a fear of missing out,” Allen said. “So they just want to text everybody to make sure that they’re not missing out on anything. At least, that’s what I do.”
It’s what a lot of teens are doing, according to survey findings published by the Pew Research Center this spring. Researchers found that 95 percent of those polled from the ages of 13 to 17 reported they owned, or had access to, a smartphone, with 45 percent reporting they were online “almost constantly” throughout the day, a percentage that doubled in just four years.
“If I’m being honest, sometimes I get way more distracted on my phone while I’m doing homework,” Allen said. “I’ve seen screenshots of people having 15-plus hours of screen time on their phone, when it comes up.”
Most of the students said they believed they could reach out to their parents and have a conversation about phone use if it became a problem with their sleep. Gunner Dacosta, a sophomore, said he already takes the sleep aid melatonin, a naturally occurring hormone, to help him fall asleep at night.
“I take melatonin every night, because I catch myself – I have a TV, I have Netflix – I catch myself not falling asleep,” Dacosta said.
Mason points out there are potential side effects of sleep aids, usually prescribed for older patients, that should give teens and their families pause before trying them. While melatonin is regulated as a dietary supplement and lab tests have shown no significant side effects, they haven’t been rigorously tested for long-term effects on children, and other drugs can have side effects that include addiction, memory loss and erratic sleep behavior.
Families can avoid such complications by having upfront, transparent conversations with teens about their device use, Mason said. Every family is different, and rules should be established that make sense for a particular household, she said.
“In adolescence, it’s a power struggle,” said Mason, who has three daughters and set a 9 p.m. limit for her eldest daughter to be on devices, said. “I think you just need to be transparent. Talk about why you use it and set your healthy limits and boundaries.”
Mason’s approach has caught the eye of the Mary Walker School District in Springdale, where students who have formed a new health club on the high school campus and plan to host her early next semester to talk about sleep hygiene. Rachel Montgomery, the club’s adviser and a community health worker through the Rural Resources Community Action program, said teenagers at the high school of roughly 200 students are keenly interested in improving their sleeping habits.
“The youth at the beginning of the school year, when we were going through all the health and wellness needs that needed to be addressed, sleep deprivation was on that list of things,” Montgomery said. “A lot of their peers had poor sleeping habits, and suffered from sleep deprivation.”
Most students at Mary Walker High School don’t have the same kind of internet and data access as those in larger schools in more urban areas, Montgomery said, but still struggle with proper sleep hygiene, among other health issues.
“I think it’s not often you find that kids are asked in an at-risk community, what are your needs,” Montgomery said.
While Ramsey knows the phone, with its nearly constant notifications and the accompanying vibrations are always crying out for his attention, is partly to blame. But part of the responsibility is also his own.
“I understand that I need to go to sleep in order to be able to function the next day,” he said.
“I tell myself, I’m actually going to go to sleep at this time, but I always find myself going way over that time, and the next morning, I’m like, I have to wake up. Darn it.”
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