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Whenever my adolescent clients tell me they’re always tired or can’t seem to concentrate at school, one of the first questions I ask is where they keep their cell phones at night.

Because, although evidence suggests that cell phone use before bedtime is detrimental to sleep quality and, in turn, overall health and wellbeing, sleeping with their phones is the norm rather than the exception for my teen clients.

I find this concerning, given recent research published online this month in the Journal of Youth Studies that adds even more clout to the no-cell-phones-in-bed argument. The authors of the study (Power et al., 2017) surveyed over 900 adolescents between 12-15 years and found that 1 in 5 reported “almost always” waking up to check social media or messages throughout the night. Those who logged onto their cell phones every night, or who woke up at inconsistent times each morning, were about three times more likely to report feeling “constantly tired” at school compared to their peers. Moreover, the former youth reported significantly lower levels of wellbeing than their classmates.

However, the temptation for teens to bring their cell phones to the bedroom is a strong one. In fact, research suggests that youth can form strong attachments to their cell phones, and there’s even a scale (the Young Adult Attachment to Phone Scale) that’s been recently developed to measure this attachment. A validation study of this scale suggested that some youth experience a heightened sense of safety in the presence of their phones, and, contrarily, feelings of separation anxiety upon its removal. As such, for many parents it can turn into a power struggle when they suggest that their teens turn off their phones – or, even more challengingly, leave their phones outside their bedrooms – before hitting the hay.

So what’s a parent to do?

Talk with your teen about their cell phone use

Before suddenly creating new rules about no cell phones in the bedroom, I think it’s critical to have an open discussion with your teen about their cell phone use and whether they believe it is impacting their sleep quality and wellbeing. Parents can empower teens to make smart choices by engaging them in a conversation about the importance of sleep during the teen years, and how checking social media right before bed or throughout the night can negatively impact health, wellbeing, and emotions. At the same time, if an adolescent is waking up multiple times during the night and checking their phone, there could be something else going on that is interfering with their sleep quality. Are they feeling worried or stressed out about something and using their phone for comfort or distraction? Or, has checking their phone during the night simply become a habit? Parents can become “information-gatherers” to find out what’s actually going on for their teens before making any big changes. This not only shows teens respect and that their voices matters, but also can strengthen the parent-adolescent relationship.

Create a family culture of (realistic) bedtime routines

We often hear about creating bedtime routines for toddlers and younger children, but bedtime rituals are important for teens, too. Although this likely won’t involve reading a 16-year-old a bedtime story, modelling healthy pre-bedtime behaviors can help set teens up for sleep success. It can be helpful to encourage adolescents to engage in a quiet activity before bed that works for them – be that reading, taking a shower, or writing in a journal. It’s also important to make prioritizing sleep quality a family affair; for example, by designating a communal spot in the house where everyone can deposit their phones before tucking in for the night. At the same time, some teens use mindfulness apps or listen to music on their phones that help them relax before bed, and these can be helpful tools. In such circumstances, parents can talk to their teens about, for example, turning their phones to  “sleep mode” at a decided-upon hour. There aren’t black-or-white solutions that work for each family, and it’s often about meeting adolescents halfway.

Prepare for excuses

Some teens will offer every excuse in the book to get out of unplugging before bed, and having some counter-excuses ready can be handy:

Teen: But I use my phone as an alarm!

Parent: We’ll get you a digital alarm clock!

Teen: But I need to check my messages!

Parent: I can guarantee they’ll still be there in the morning!

For parents needing a bit more of a boost, I direct them to the National Sleep Foundation’s list of consequences for teens who are lacking in the sleep department. My favourite? That insufficient sleep can contribute to acne (nothing like the threat of a pimple to inspire some teens to get more shut-eye).

In sum, the National Sleep Foundation suggests that teenagers get 8-10 hours of shut-eye per night; however, lack of sleep is one of the most common health risks for adolescents, for whom chronic sleep loss has become the norm (Adolescent Sleep Working Group: Committee on Adolescence, 2014). Of course, the solution is not as simple as powering down before turning in for the night, but, at the very least, this conversation should be put on the table between parents and their teens. 

References

Adolescent Sleep Working Group: Committee on Adolescence (2014). Insufficient sleep in adolescents and young adults: An update on causes and consequences. Pediatrics, 134, 921-932. 

Power, S., Taylor, C., & Horton, K. (2017). Sleepless in school? The social dimensions of young people’s bedtime rest and routines. Journal of Youth Studies. doi: 10.1080/13676261.2016.1273522

Trub, L., & Barbot, B. (2016). The paradox of phone attachment: Development and validation of the Young Adult Attachment to Phone Scale (YAPS). Computers in Human Behavior, 64, 663-672. 

About the Author

Amy Green M.A.

Amy Green, M.A., is a doctoral student in Counselling Psychology at the University of Calgary. 

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