TEEN
10/04/2013 12:41 pm ET Updated Oct 07, 2013

Screentime Before Bedtime: Are You Counting Tweets Instead Of Sheep?

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This article was written by teen reporters from The Mash, a weekly publication distributed to Chicagoland high schools.

By David Rodriguez, Lane Tech High School

For Lane Tech junior Damariz Posada, Tuesday mornings start at 5 a.m. She gets ready and takes an hourlong train ride to school. Posada walks into her first period class at 8 a.m. After school, she goes to her job at the Free Street Theater and works until 7:30 p.m.

Posada gets home around 8 p.m. and does homework for about four hours, on and off. She finally goes to sleep around 2 a.m.

So what’s going on between midnight and 2 a.m.? Posada admits she’s watching movies in bed before closing her eyes.

“I’m a teenager after all,” she said.

Like most teenagers, Posada has a hectic schedule. After a full day of school, work and homework, the last hours of the day—or the early morning hours—are the only time she can find to relax and do something mindless.

If you’ve ever stayed up late to scroll through your Instagram, Twitter or Facebook feeds, you know the feeling. For some, bedtime is the best time to catch up with friends on social networks or watch a few episodes of “Orange Is the New Black.”

In 2011, the National Sleep Foundation measured the impact of using technology before going to bed. They found that 13- to 18-year-olds were clocking lots of time in front of TV and phone screens before drifting off to sleep. Seventy-two percent reported using cell phones, 64 percent said they used music devices and 60 percent said they used a computer or laptop.

Teenagers are also the most likely to be texting in the hour before trying to go to sleep—56 percent of teens surveyed said they did so every night or almost every night, compared to 42 percent of 19- to 29-year-olds who reported the same behavior.

“It’s easier to use social networks and stuff at night because I’m not as busy then,” said David Huff, a junior at King.

For some teens, using electronics before bed is the norm. Doing anything else would just seem weird.

“I’ve been leaving the TV on since I was a kid, and it’s become a habit,” said Michael Finley, a junior at Kenwood. “It would be tough to sleep without my TV on because I don’t really like when it’s dark in my room.”

Part of the dilemma can be explained by science. “As a teen hits puberty, their body clock is being naturally pushed back, so they’re just not getting tired until later,” said James J. Herdegen, medical director for the Sleep Science Center at University of Illinois.

If teens aren’t feeling sleepy until later, they might be turning to electronics to fill their time before drifting off to sleep. And while it may feel like productive time for some, sleep specialists will tell you a very different story.

“If you combine the tendency to want to go to bed later with the use of electronics, then certainly that can lead to problems because you still have to go to school, and now you’re being sleep deprived,” Herdegen said.

You’ve probably heard your parents say that you need a full eight to nine hours of sleep per night, right? Well, that’s true. Your pre-bedtime routine is also a crucial factor in a good night’s sleep.

“The routine adolescents have before sleep is very important; this can be pivotal for teens to get the full night’s sleep that they need,” said Jann Gumbiner, a psychologist and clinical professor at the University of California, Irvine College of Medicine. “The sleep cycle is activated by light. It’s why teens get woken up by the morning light.”
Looking at something with a bright screen can make your brain think it’s time to get up and start the day.

“Using electronics before bed can delay melatonin releases, one of our endogenous hormones that induces sleep,” Herdegen added.

Translation: The light coming off of your phone, laptop, iPad or TV can trick you into to feeling alert and awake even if you’re genuinely tired. That can lead to feeling irritable or upset.

“When I’m tired I get really emotional, and if someone’s not texting me back right away or messaging me I say really mean things,” said Clare Darnall, a junior at Oak Park and River Forest.

If nighttime isn’t the best time to get things done, when are teenagers supposed to finish up homework or find time to catch up on Instagram? “It’s actually better for teens to just go to sleep and wake up earlier and do it the next morning when they’re re-energized,” said insomnia treatment specialist Jane Dyonzak.

When you can’t fall asleep as quickly as you’d like, resist the temptation to grab your phone. Instead, find things that will ease you into feeling tired.

“I try to get off the computer an hour before bed and walk the dog or read a book or something, because when I don’t I just feel wired and can’t get to sleep for a while,” said Lane Tech senior Levi Todd.

That’s not to say all technology is harmful before bedtime. Music could be a loophole, as long as you’re not staring at an iPod screen.

“Get music you find relaxing, and make that into a playlist,” Dyonzak said.

Going cold turkey with electronics before bedtime might not be so easy. But there’s something you can do to control the light on your screens. Some tablets, like the Kindle Fire HD, have a function that can switch the black and white coloring while you’re reading a book in order to put less strain on your eyes.

And for those who love their computers, there are software programs such as F.lux that adjust your laptop’s color temperature to make it easier on your eyes.

As a generation that’s becoming more and more dependent on electronics, it’s important to know when to take a break. Checking a text or two may not hurt you, but it can be tough to draw the line. Who hasn’t found themselves pulled into the black hole of YouTube after watching one innocent three-minute video?

Just remember, the minutes or hours that you tack on at the end of the day can never really be gained back. Use them wisely.

—Camarri Lane from Kenwood contributed.

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