The trouble with switching off

michael-gradisar-webIt’s not just Australians who stay glued to electronic devices until bedtime – the Americans are at it too, according to Flinders psychologist Dr Michael Gradisar.

Dr Gradisar (pictured) recently completed a stint as a guest researcher in the largest annual sleep study in the world, run by the National Sleep Foundation in the US.

The 2011 National Sleep Poll had technology as its theme, and found that 97 per cent of the 1500 respondents used some type of electronic device – television, computer, video game or cell phone – within an hour of going to bed at least a few nights a week. With almost half of Americans aged between 13 and 64 complaining that they seldom get a good night’s sleep on weeknights, Dr Gradisar said that there is plenty of scope to investigate the part played by technology in restless, disrupted or unrefreshing sleep.

Dr Gradisar has found similarities – and differences –  between the poll results and his own survey of  pre-sleep habits among 384 Adelaide teenagers.

Dr Gradisar said that while TV was the dominant form of technology used by older Americans before bed, computer or laptop use is very high among the younger demographic groups. Fifty-six per cent of Generation Z (30 to 45 year-olds) and only slightly less of the ”millennials” (19 to 29 year-olds)  surf the Internet nearly every night in the hour before sleep; one in five Americans plays a video game.

Dr Gradisar said electronic devices continue to impinge on sleepers during the night, with one in 10 Generation Z  Americans reporting that they are awakened every night or almost every night by a text message or email.

The Australian teenagers also showed high use of technology, with around 75 per cent using technology in the hour before bed, falling to two-thirds on weekends.

TV and computer use were the standouts, with technological socialising (via mobile phones, MSN and Facebook) was  “surprisingly low” at around six per cent of teens,  regardless of whether it was a school night or weekend.
Dr Gradisar said that while the US poll found day-time sleepiness to be very common among 13 to 18 year olds in the US (typically caffeine drinks and naps are used to compensate), he is yet to assess what the effects of technology are on Adelaide’s teenagers.

“One person’s stimulant can be another’s relaxant,” he said.

“Are the teenagers losing track of time and thus the technology use is eating into their time to sleep, or have they learned that they won’t fall asleep until it’s late, so they fill this void by using technology?

“Determining how technology use before bed influences teenagers’ sleep, and then how the lack of sleep affects how they function the next day is going to be an important question to answer.”

Results from the National Sleep Foundation poll can be found at http://www.sleepfoundation.org/category/article-type/sleep-america-polls

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