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With Halloween approaching, it’s a good time to highlight that ‘Vampire kids’ –children and teenagers who are letting their use of tech devices eat into their sleeping hours – are already with us. Numerous studies document the detrimental consequences of night-time digital addition on general wellbeing including ability to focus, behaviour and outlook. What’s more, adolescent circadian rhythms are already biologically disposed to be more delayed than adult ones, and the extended use of devices augments the issue of sleep deprivation.
A growing generation of kids and teenagers are losing out on the sleep they need because of their addiction to the internet. Stanford Medicine News Center even refers to teen sleep deprivation as an epidemic. While teens feel they need to unwind with gadgets, many are not aware that they are creating sleep problems with repercussions on their health and ability to learn. While children have always wanted to stay up late, digital life in the form of social media, video clips and games can be engaged with anytime, and easily concealed from parents via hand-held devices. In the UK, an estimated three million children, aged 8-15 own an internet-enabled smartphone and one in three kids aged 5-15 own a tablet. Two-thirds of secondary school pupils take these gadgets to bed, according to the UK tech promotion charity Techknowledge for Schools.
Danah Boyd, author of the book “It’s Complicated: The Social Lives Of Networked Teens”, says young people would rather be chronically tired and hide internet use from their parents, than give up what they regard as ‘me time’ late at night. Staying up at night has become ‘cool’ with children egging each other on over social media. Indeed, the social media feeds on Twitter in the early hours feature scores of selfies of bleary-eyed teens in bedrooms faintly illuminated by the blue light of their mobile devices, informing fellow night owls that they are still awake with hashtags such as ‘up all night’. New research confirms this. For instance, research among Welsh secondary schoolchildren by the Wales Institute of Social and Economic Research, Data & Methods published in September 2015, found that 20% “wake almost every night to use social media”. Even if teens don’t stay up into the early hours, a 2015 report by the Pew Research Center, found that circa 64% of their US contemporaries use electronic music devices, 60% use laptops, over 50% report texting before sleep and 23% play video games in the hour before they go to sleep with these media fans least likely to report getting a good night’s sleep.
Parents often find themselves in a no-win situation as their offspring often require devices for study, but they then find it stressful to retrieve gadgets as the night approaches, despite the insistence of psychologists that parental control over device use is essential to prevent bedtimes from being the prelude to hours of exchanging messages and videos with friends. Parent bloggers lament how devices compete and win against their treasured moments with their kids such as storytelling. Parent blogs are brimming with discussions on the fallout in terms of tiredness, lack of concentration, diminished academic performance and depression that late night device use brings. The account of UK mother, Jennifer McFall, as told to newspaper, The Daily Mail, is not an unusual one. At two am, passing her son Charlie’s room, she spied a blue glow coming from her son’s tablet: “There was Charlie engrossed in a YouTube clip about the game Minecraft, even though he had to get up for school just five hours later”. While her son claimed to have just woken up to use his device, “the bags under Charlie’s eyes, his grey, almost vampire-like pallor and filthy mood at breakfast the next morning told a different story”.
Professor Paul Kelley of Oxford university’s Sleep and Circadian Neuroscience Institute is among science professionals already campaigning for later morning start times for pupils aged 16+ as studies at institutions such as Harvard Medical School, Oxford University and the University of Nevada show that that adolescent circadian rhythms, set by the body clock that manages the cycle of sleep and wakefulness, are delayed by two to three hours compared to older adults. This biological predisposition for delayed sleep is exacerbated by round the clock social media and abnormal light exposure from a range of devices which suppresses the production of melatonin, a chemical that aids sleep.