Bothered by cell phones

Teens who are always on call have trouble falling and staying asleep

BALTIMORE — Excessive cell phone use during the day can mean restless nights and disturbed sleep for teenagers and young adults, new research suggests.

Teens who get more than 15 calls or text messages each day are more restless, consume more caffeine and alcohol, have more trouble falling asleep and staying asleep and are more susceptible to stress and fatigue than young people who receive five or fewer calls or text messages each day, shows a study presented Monday at SLEEP 2008, the annual meeting of the Associated Professional Sleep Societies.

The study included 21 young people age 14 to 20. There were three men and seven women in the low cell phone use group and three men and eight women in the high use group. The teens wore wrist watches that monitored their activity level throughout the day. They also kept sleep diaries and answered questionnaires to gage their level of stress and anxiety. Once during the week-long study, the researchers staged an in-home sleep study to measure how well the kids slept.

Young people in the study weren’t staying up late to text and phone their friends, says Gaby Bader of Sahlgren’s Academy in Gothenburg, Sweden, and lead researcher on the new study. “It’s not the phone use per se. It’s not the electromagnetic field.” Rather the problem is more likely a buildup of stress from being constantly connected and on call that gets children and young adults keyed up and disturbs their sleep, he says.

Every time the phone rings or vibrates to signal a call or message, stress hormones shoot up for a bit, Bader suggests. Many such instances can have a cumulative negative effect on teens’ sleep later, he adds. He advocates restricting phone use and instituting cell-phone-free slots during the day.

But other researchers aren’t convinced that cell phones are the culprit.

“It’s an eye-opener,” says Sanjeev Kothare of Harvard Medical School and Children’s Hospital Boston, “but it doesn’t distinguish between phone use and the personality of the kid.”

Some teens have shifted sleeping patterns or may just generally be revved up go-getters who get little sleep, Kothare says. High cell phone use may just be part of the child’s personality rather than the cause of sleep disturbances.

Tina Hesman Saey

Tina Hesman Saey is the senior staff writer and reports on molecular biology. She has a Ph.D. in molecular genetics from Washington University in St. Louis and a master’s degree in science journalism from Boston University.

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