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ADVANCE Perspective: Respiratory Views

Social Media & Sleep

Published January 27, 2016 2:24 PM by ADVANCE for Respiratory Care & Sleep Medicine

By Tamer Abouras


In a way that’s paradoxical and ironic, the internet — and app-based social media platforms ostensibly powered by it — makes widely disseminating conspiracy theories about assorted modern technologies (including itself) easier than ever before. Just think for a moment of all the times you’ve researched how to “go off the grid,” while being connected to a local coffee shop’s Wi-Fi — from your smartphone.


As many among us simultaneously grumble about innovations while making use of them, it can be increasingly difficult to sort through the facts, fictions and exaggerations associated with them. Can your cell phone cause cancer? Technically it’s a possibility, but probably not. On the other hand, overuse of your phone leading to newly-coined issues such as “texting neck” has more of a ring of truth to it.


The fact of the matter, of course, is that while there are some conditions arising from our new gadgets — and the amount of time we all spend fooling around with them — that are surprising and worth verifying, many others (such as “texting neck”) are obvious. While you don’t have to jump all the way over to the side of your cranky grandparents, they do have one thing right: there are health-related downsides to these new devices when we use them too liberally.

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According to the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, one such downside might very well be sleeping issues, particularly among those aged 19-32. In new research published online and scheduled for the April issue of the journal Preventive Medicine, the research — which was supported by the National Institutes of Health — recommends that physicians begin asking patients in the aforementioned young adult age range about their social media proclivities, particularly when assessing issues with sleeping.


“This is one of the first pieces of evidence that social media use really can impact your sleep,” said lead author Jessica C. Levenson, PhD, a postdoctoral researcher in Pitt’s Department of Psychiatry. “And it uniquely examines the association between social media use and sleep among young adults who are, arguably, the first generation to grow up with social media.”


In 2014, Dr. Levenson and her team surveyed 1788 U.S. adults between the ages of 19 and 32, asking them in a questionnaire about their use of the 11 most popular social media platforms as of then: Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Google Plus, Instagram, Snapchat, Reddit, Tumblr, Pinterest, Vine and LinkedIn.


Per the press release, “On average, the participants used social media a total of 61 minutes per day and visited various social media accounts 30 times per week. The assessment showed that nearly 30% of the participants had high levels of sleep disturbance.


The participants who reported most frequently checking social media throughout the week had three times the likelihood of sleep disturbances, compared with those who checked least frequently. And participants who spent the most total time on social media throughout the day had twice the risk of sleep disturbance, compared to peers who spent less time on social media.”


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Added Levenson, “This may indicate that frequency of social media visits is a better predictor of sleep difficulty than overall time spent on social media,” Dr. Levenson explained. “If this is the case, then interventions that counter obsessive ‘checking’ behavior may be most effective.”


Where the study wanders into the realm of the obvious, however, is in suggesting what aspects of social media use could specifically disrupt sleep. Listed are 1) The displacement of sleep by staying up late to post things on one of these platforms; 2) The promotion of “emotional, cognitive or physiological arousal,” the likes of which are common when you’re arguing with someone in comments sections; and 3) “Disrupting circadian rhythms through the bright light emitted by the devices used to access social media accounts.”


Of these, only the last is outside the bounds of common sense. With that being said, social media can — in a very practical sense — devour both your days and nights if you become too preoccupied with using it. And worst of all, the study does allude to something most unsettling: social media use as a way to pass the time when you can’t sleep may actually lead to bigger sleeping issues.


Said senior author Brian A. Primack, M., PhD, assistant vice chancellor for health and society in Pitt’s Schools of the Health Sciences, “Difficulty sleeping may lead to increased use of social media, which may in turn lead to more problems sleeping. This cycle may be particularly problematic with social media because many forms involve interactive screen time that is stimulating and rewarding and, therefore, potentially detrimental to sleep.”


So as far as the “social media deprives you of sleep” theory goes, it seems as though it falls more on the side of fact than fiction. And suffice it to say, there’s nothing to “like” about that.

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