Tweeting, Not Sleeping? What Is Your Social Media/Sleep Balance?

02/02/2016 08:15 am ET | Updated Feb 02, 2016
Ken Drysdale via Getty Images

New research links social media and sleep problems

Social media has become a fixture of modern life, a constant stream of information coming and going, and a way to stay perpetually connected. I love social media, it keeps me in touch with friends, family, and all of the people out there who are interested in learning more about sleep! But have you ever wondered how all that Twittering, Instagramming and Snapchatting might be affecting your sleep? According to just-released research, time spent on social media may be seriously undermining nightly rest.

Sleep and the digital generation
Young people are among the most avid and heavy users of social media, and this latest research focused on the effects of social media engagement among young adults. The results strongly indicate social media use in young people is linked to sleep problems. Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh examined social media use and sleep in a group of young adults, and found that heavier users of social media are significantly more likely to experience disturbances to their sleep.

Their study included a nationally representative group of 1,788 adults between the ages 19-32. Researchers measured both the frequency and volume of social media use. Social media volume was a measurement of the amount of time spent engaged daily. Social media frequency was a measurement of the number of visits to social media sites over the course of a week. Researchers gathered sleep data using patient-reported information about sleep habits and experiences. So these data are subjective not objective.

The scientists' analysis showed a strong correlation ( a relationship, not a cause) between social media use and sleep disruption. Among participants, heavier volume and frequency of social media interaction was associated with significantly greater likelihood of sleep problems.

The highest volume users of social media--those in the top 25 percent--had nearly two times the risk of sleep disruption as those in the lowest 25 percent.

The most frequent social media users--again, those young adults in the top 25 percent--had nearly three times the risk of sleep disturbance as those in the lowest 25 percent.

This study did not address what is driving the relationship between social media engagement and sleep. Is frequent, heavy social media use contributing directly or indirectly to sleep problems. Are people who have trouble sleeping more likely to be using social media more often than better sleepers? Or are both influences in effect? These are important questions that need to be the subject of additional study.

The impact of social media on health, sleep
Science is just beginning to assess the impact of social media use on health and well being. This current research is one of the first studies to draw a link between social media engagement and risk of sleep disturbance. But other recent scientific evidence has also provided insight into social media's possible role in undermining sleep and health in young people:

• College-age adults who check social media sites during typical sleeping hours are more likely to suffer daytime tiredness and cognitive impairment, according to research. They are also more likely to use sleep medications. (Other research shows that young adults are extremely likely to keep their phones or mobile devices near their beds, and are very likely to use these devices while in bed.)

• A 2015 study of teenagers ages 11-17 found that social media use was linked to diminished sleep quality. Researchers also found social media use linked to lower self-esteem among teens, as well as to elevated levels of anxiety and depression. This study examined time of day as a factor in social media's effect on sleep, and found that using social media at night was especially detrimental to teens' sleep.

Links to depression, anxiety
Other research has demonstrated troubling associations between social media use and psychological health in children, teens and young people.

• Frequent use of social media among children and teens in grades 7-12 has been linked to increased levels of psychological stress and diminished mental health, according to research. Higher levels of social media use also increases teens' risk for becoming victims of cyber-bullying.

• A recent study of more than 1,700 young adults ages 19-32, also conducted at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, examined the link between social media use and depression. (This investigation involved some of the same researchers as the current sleep and social media study.) Researchers found that young adults with the highest rates of social media engagement were at significantly greater risk for depression.

Depression and sleep have a complicated, bi-directional relationship--that's to say, each condition can significantly influence the other. People with depression very often have trouble sleeping, and people with sleep problems are more vulnerable to depression. The effect of social media on mood and psychological well being, in children and in adults, has important implications for sleep, but is not yet well understood.

Social Media/Sleep Balance
All of these studies, like the current one, draw compelling connections among sleep, sleep-related problems, and social media use. But none of them establish underlying cause. Given the outsized role that social media plays in the lives of most young people--and people of all ages--it is critically important we develop a better, more thorough understanding of how social media behavior is affecting sleep and health, if at all.

In the meantime, it is important to draw boundaries on social media time, and to help children and teenagers learn to do so as well. With such easy and unlimited access, it's not difficult to understand how establishing and maintaining limits around social media might be difficult, but it is not impossible. You can have your tweet, post, or chat in a healthy way, it just about making a decision for balance in your social media world. Let's call it your social media/sleep balance (like your work/life balance).

The Sleep Doctor Guide for Social Media/Sleep Balance:

• Charge your mobile devices out of the bedroom (this way you cant hear it buzz in the middle of the night).
• Stop social media use at least an hour before bedtime (this can be a tough one, try 30 minutes at first, then make it a little longer).
• Replace this time, with light reading (not on an electronic device), simple stretches, meditation or deep breathing.
• Don't check Social Media in the middle of the night when you may wake to use the restroom or just get more comfortable.

Sweet Dreams,
Michael J. Breus, PhD
The Sleep Doctor™
For updates follow me @thesleepdoctor