Analysis: new studies are looking at how patterns of sleep, stress and health are linked in Irish teens
While much about sleep remains unknown, it’s certain that we need it to be psychologically and physically well. Our sleep patterns and quality of sleep are influenced by such factors as learned behaviours, genetic variations, individual patterns of daily sleepiness and changing needs. Our social and work demands often override the natural pattern of sleep – even when the person feels tired!
Some people may believe they don’t need as much sleep as recommended and so sleep less, but those who habitually sleep less will sleep significantly more if the reasons for restricting their sleep are removed. When such restrictions as morning alarms, workload and delayed bedtimes to watch television or be online are removed, people consistently return to a pattern of seven to nine hours of sleep per night.
The less sleep the teen has, the more likely they are to be stressed and the greater the number of health risks we can see in their bodies
Insufficient sleep and the resulting daytime sleepiness contribute to a number of physical and mental health problems. Although there is some individual variation, most adults need seven to nine hours’ sleep each night and the recommendation for adolescents is to get eight to ten hours of sleep each night.
The difference in sleep needs and patterns across the lifespan is explained by the differences in mental and physical development and activities at different ages. In many countries, including Ireland, adolescents don’t get the sleep needed for normal functioning, with estimates that less than half of Irelands teens are getting a good night of sleep during the week.
The day after the night before
While people manage to get through the next day following a night of poor sleep, they have more anxiety, more anger, poorer impulse control and experience changes in how they interact with others. They are also somewhat less able to think rationally. This toll isn’t just felt on the day following poor sleep though: the costs accumulate over weeks, months, and years so that insufficient sleep reduces the likelihood of living a long, health and happy life.
Insufficient and poor sleep in adolescence directly affects academic performance, increases the risk of emotional instability, anxiety, childhood depression and learning difficulties. In general, teens who don’t get enough sleep have poorer overall wellbeing. The links between sleep, wellbeing and disease are still to be fully understood, but there are several possible explanations, including changes in biological functions and changes in health behaviours that emerge from insufficient.
Why could the use of smartphones, laptops and tablet computers be so problematic?
When people have insufficient sleep, they have lower ability to regulate their behaviour and that includes eating, exercise and other health related behaviours. Figuring out why modern teens are at such risk from lack of sleep is important in order to support their better health during adolescence. It is also important in shaping how we might plan intervention and prevention programmes as they enter adulthood with existing sleep related health and well-being problems.
The thing about technology
A recent Irish public health initiative reminded people about the need for sleep and what the consequences are, but didn’t address the reasons why so many adults and children don’t get enough sleep. One of the causes of sleep insufficiency for teens is technology use, as both daytime and bedtime device use increases the risk of shorter sleep. This has been highlighted by developmental psychologists and sleep researchers as a modern day risk for teen health.
Why could the use of smartphones, laptops and tablet computers be so problematic? Some of this relates to the effect of the light emitted from devices. Screens emit significant amounts of short-wavelength light (known as "blue light"), which increases alertness and affects sleep timing. Some devices and apps can adjust or block this light, and are recommended for use at night.
Other explanations are less well studied, but might be related to how devices are being used to interct with people on social media or watching YouTube videos. This stream of new stimuli might have a stronger effect on overall alertness and emotions than reading a book. For these reasons, teens are more likely to spend extended periods using devices, compared to reading a book or doing other less stimulatory activities.
At the School of Applied Psychology at UCC, we’ve been studying how patterns of sleep, stress and health are linked in Irish teens. We’re very interested in what experiences and behaviours during the day might disrupt sleep patterns and how these affect the risk for cardiovascular disease and diabetes in later life.
In one recently completed study, we asked teens in Munster to record their daily experiences of hassles and uplifting experiences and interactions in their daily life. We also asked Irish teens to describe their use of electronic devices, such as smartphones, computers and television at night. The results are in line with our studies over the last decade showing that teens experience stress from two main sources, namely time demands and their relationships with other people. Although devices can help teens be more efficient (with homework for example), they also work to distract them from the work that needs to get done. In this recent study, we find Irish teens are not getting close to sufficient sleep and there are many reasons why they may not.
When people have insufficient sleep, they have lower ability to regulate their behaviour and that includes eating and exercise
We are not mapping how daily stress experiences and sleep in these teens is affecting their physical health by using measures of allostatic load. Allostatic load is the cost of being stressed and the demand of getting the stressed body and mind back to baseline. Previously, it was believed that this load cost only emerged in mid-to-later life, when stress and life experiences had stacked up. However markers of allostatic load are showing up in teens, likely linked to stress and also health behaviours including sleep.
Our preliminary findings align with our earlier studies of stress and health. The less sleep the teen has, the more likely they are to be stressed and the greater the number of health risks we can see in their bodies, including blood pressure, cholesterol and weight. What is equally interesting are the patterns of sleep, stress and technology use.
Our findings suggest a more nuanced association of tech device use, stress and sleep than previous work. As teens use these devices for social support and use apps to support better health, there are opportunities to develop online programmes to specifically target teen sleep and health.