Overuse of mobile devices gets a bad rap, but an upside may be their ability to create a distraction and positively affect teenagers’ ability to sleep, shows new Flinders University research published in Sleep Advances.

Feedback from over 600 teenagers, aged 12 to 18, at South Australian schools between June and September 2019 has led the research group to point to a more nuanced view on using a range of mobile content—led by Youtube, music apps, Instagram, and Snapchat—before young people’s bedtime. 

“Many teenagers struggle with a racing mind when sleep doesn’t come easy,” says lead corresponding author Serena Bauducco, PhD, a visiting postdoctoral researcher from Orebro University, in a press release. 

The majority of 631 adolescents surveyed used technology as a distraction from negative or distressing thoughts, with 23.6% answering “yes” and 38.4% “sometimes.” However, the study did reveal a higher tendency of app use among young people with existing sleep problems compared to those not reporting a sleep problem, leading researchers to caution that other solutions are needed to help teenagers to fall asleep. 

Passive entertainment, via music apps or Youtube video clips, or interacting with peers via Instagram or Snapchat were considered the most popular distractions.  

“This study shows that many adolescents use technology to distract themselves from negative thoughts, which may help them manage the sleep-onset process. Thus, distraction may be one mechanism explaining how sleep affects technology use, rather than vice-versa,” the study concludes. 

Alexandra Daniels, first author of the study and Flinders University psychology graduate, says the complex relationship between sleep and technology is illustrated by a tendency for some adolescents with sleep problems to use devices more frequently before bed. 

“This study helps to provide evidence to suggest that the relationship between teenagers, technology, and sleep is much more complex than the previously accepted idea that technology use prior to sleep onset is always negative and harmful,” she says in a press release. 

South Australian child and adolescent sleep expert Michael Gradisar, PhD, who conceived the idea behind the study, says the research suggests that recommendations for focused use of certain apps could become an integral part of some adolescents’ sleep routines to help them regulate their negative thoughts.    

Respondents in the study were asked which app was likely to distract them from any negative or distressing thoughts, from messaging, phone calls, Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat, Twitter, Youtube, Reddit, Tumblr, Spotify/iTunes/Apple Music, Netflix/Stan, Viber/WhatsApp, gaming app, audiobook, or “other.”  

Participants reported multiple technology preferences, including mobile phones, iPads, laptops, desktop computers, iPod/MP3 players, televisions, gaming consoles, or “other.”  

Researchers note the recent rise in popularity of TikTok and other apps in a rapidly changing field. 

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