I visited with 5 charming teenagers last week. Four of them had something in common: These teenagers are texting in the middle of the night, nearly every night.
Texting in the middle of the night is not a new phenomenon. Over 2 years ago, reports on teenagers texting at night began to surface. One study concluded the average teenager sends 34 texts after lights out. Simply based on the conversations I have had over the last week, I would consider 34 texts a night to be a gross underestimate.
What I found more interesting was each teen’s response when I asked why they were texting at such odd hours. All 4 teens shared nearly the same reply,
“If I don’t keep up with what people are talking about, I’m afraid they will start talking about me. I don’t want to be left out. I’m not asleep, anyway.”
I agree that kids need to connect with their peers. The underlying problem for these night-texting teens, however, is a feeling of obligation to respond to every tag, update, mention, and text. This need to connect becomes all-consuming, overriding what most would consider a personal boundary of time and space.
If left unchecked, the need for teens to be constantly available is coming at a cost of their emotional and physical health. Texting throughout the night leads to sleep deprivation and its associated health concerns.
Here are just a few:
- Physical. Chronic poor sleep effects the ability of the immune system, leading to the increased risk of infections. (There is a reason we see more kids with mono around finals week….) Poor sleep is also associated with weight gain.
- Mental. Depression and anxiety are known to be the result of chronic poor sleep. In fact, one study reported over 75% of teens feeling sad or depressed also were not getting enough sleep at night. Fatigued people are also noted to be quick to anger, causing disruption and embarrassing social choices.
- Academic. If a child sacrifices sleep in order to complete academic assignments, the negative effects of decreased sleep will remain on the following day. Dr. Craig Canapari has an excellent post on this association. Chronic sleep deprivation can also be confused with the symptoms of ADHD, leading to inappropriate diagnosis and unnecessary medication.
- Safety – Fatigue impairs alertness. When the most common cause of death in teens is motor vehicle fatalities, alertness at the wheel needs to be prioritized.
In my opinion, restorative night sleep for our teenagers is of critical importance and needs to be prioritized.
Here are some action steps to help evaluate and encourage a healthy sleep balance for your home.
1. Observe your teen’s sleep habits. On average, teenagers should get 8-10 hours of uninterrupted sleep each night in order to prepare for the next day. If your child seems to be getting adequate sleep, but has symptoms of sleep deprivation, it is your job to investigate.
2. Take the texting device at night. Create and enforce rules in your home that optimize your teen’s sleep. Allow them to separate completely from the influences and stresses of the day.
I suggest taking away the texting devices away from pre-teens and teens 1-2 hours prior to bedtime. Remove the temptation and interruption that a “silent” phone in the room allows. Make every child’s room an “electronic-free zone” after lights out.
Of note: An interesting consequence for some teens whose phone is taken from them every evening is a healthy feeling of release. They look forward to the time when they must sign off from the conversations. This good feeling from creating a healthy boundary stays with them long after they are under their parents’ roof.
3. It is critical for us, as parents, to demonstrate the priority of sleep. The self-awareness needed to recognize the importance of healthy sleep and personal space does not come naturally for most teens. It is our job, as caring parents, to be an example of healthy boundaries and the priority of sleep. Limit late-night electronic use and keep electronics out of all sleeping areas. Because, as with most everything else, our actions much match our words.
When daylight comes again, rest assured, everyone can have their phone back.
Natasha Burgert is a pediatrician who blogs at KC Kids Doc.