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When the Pew Research Center began tracking social media use in 2005, only 5% of Americans used it. Today, about 70% of Americans do. Not only are the majority of us using social media, but most of us check in on at least a daily basis. Roughly half of Facebook and Snapchat users check in multiple times a day:
Just as social media use has grown in recent decades, so have sleep problems. The recommended amount of sleep for adults is 7 to 7.5 hours. In the 1940s, the average American enjoyed 7.9 hours of sleep. Today, we’re sleeping nearly an hour less, at just 6.8 hours of sleep per night. Worse, a full third of us are missing out on the sleep we need on a regular basis, according to the CDC.
It’s interesting to note the parallels among sleep issues and social media use. But many researchers believe these parallels are more than mere coincidence. A growing body of evidence suggests a strong link between extensive social media use and disturbed sleep.
The relationship between social media use and sleep is complex. Researchers have been careful to note the relationship between social media and sleep is one of correlation, not causation. Many factors play into it, including social media-induced depression, internet addiction, and stress—all of which can cause sleep problems in their own right.
On an emotional level, social media is tied to depression and stress—two of the largest contributors to insomnia. Social media also disturbs sleep on a physical level. To use social media, one must be on their phone or computer, and blue light from these electronic devices—especially at night—interferes with the body’s natural circadian rhythms.
Whichever way you look at it, however, there appears to be a strong positive correlation between social media use and sleep problems. Below we take a look at the particular aspects of social media which appear to contribute to sleep problems.
At a high level, there’s a strong correlation between social media use and disturbed sleep. In other words, the more you use social media, the more likely you are to experience poor sleep.
Both overall time spent on social media, as well as frequency, have been tied to sleep problems."
In 2014, researchers observed the sleep and social media patterns of 1,788 Americans. As social media use is more prevalent among younger people, researchers looked specifically at young adults aged 19 to 32. The median amount of time spent on social media was just over 1 hour a day. Over half of the participants experienced moderate to severe sleep disturbance, and there was a strong linear relationship between increased social media use and increased sleep disturbance.
Researchers groups participants into quartiles, based on their social media use. When comparing the group who used social media the most each day against the group who used it the least, the top quartile was nearly twice as likely to have sleep problems.
When looking at the frequency of their social media use (specifically, how many times they logged in per week or day), the trend became even more pronounced—to nearly three times as likely.
Nighttime social media use has a further negative impact to sleep quality."
That makes the case for social media disturbing sleep, no matter when you use it. But what happens when you use social media before bed?
A separate group of researchers observed a similarly-sized group of young adults, also aged 19-32. The ones who checked social media in the 30 minutes before they go to sleep were over 1.5 times more likely to experience disturbed sleep than those who used it earlier in the day.
A large-scale study in China observed the use of social media among undergraduate students. While over half of the group who used social media reported sleep problems, the ones who used social media in the 30 to 120 minutes before bed were more likely to report poorer sleep quality.
Social media use carries over into reduced functioning the following day."
The effects of social media use aren’t limited to how well you sleep. The impact to your sleep quality can affect your functioning the next day, according to one study of nearly 1,000 teenage students in Singapore. Of the participants, fewer than 2% actually got the minimum recommended amount of sleep for this age group, which would be closer to 9 hours. The rest were about equally split between 6 hours or less, and 7 to 8 hours.
Like the previous studies, researchers observed a correlation between nighttime social media and lower amounts of overall sleep. Interestingly, however, they also observed increased levels of daytime sleepiness and impaired functioning after students engaged in late-night social media use.
Heavy social media use has also been linked to several mental health issues, including schizophrenia. For most people, however, depression and stress are the more common side effects of heavy social media use. These are also common comorbid conditions of insomnia.
Not only do depression and anxiety contribute to insomnia, but lack of sleep worsens these conditions in turn, creating a vicious cycle where the anxiety-inducing effects of social media are felt more acutely—as are the severity of the sleep problems.
The depression and anxiety that results from social media use can come from a variety of factors. We review these below.
The sedentary yet addictive nature of social media leads to depression."
The activity of using social media is a sedentary one. The longer individuals spend engaging in these types of sedentary activities, without a sense of productivity or purpose, tends to worsen mood by creating a feeling of wasted time.
Things become more complicated when one considers the quality of the content on social media. Social media is highly curated, mostly consisting of smiling and flawless photos. Viewing this content over an extended period of time can stir up feelings of envy and resentment as one compares oneself to others, and a misguided belief that others are leading much happier lives.
Studies have found a strong, direct association between both the frequency with which people check social media, and the amount of time they spend on social media, with a 2 to 3 times increased risk of depression.
Additionally, social media use can contribute to “internet addiction.” While not yet formalized as a psychiatric condition, studies indicate internet addiction is independently associated with depression.
Cyber-bullying intensifies the risk of depression."
Cyber-bullying is alarmingly prevalent on social networking sites. A comprehensive review of 36 studies found that 23% of teens (aged 12 to 18) experienced cyberbullying, and documented a strong correlation between cyberbullying and depression.
Problematically, researchers have found that some preteens and teens, as a result of cyberbullying, may spend even more time on social media sites as a result of their real-world social isolation. They may look to social media sites to find the peer group they feel bullied out of in real life, which can lead to riskier behavior and depression.
Independent of depression, social media creates feelings of stress."
Similar to watching TV, using social media wakes up your brain. Depending on what shows up in your feed, you start thinking about other people and their lives, and considering the problems of the world.
Just like watching an action-packed TV show, this can create stress—even when it’s an enjoyable activity. Binge-watching television, another sedentary activity, can be just as detrimental to sleep as social media is. You’re introducing your brain to information overload, actively waking up your brain and inviting it to think, rather than relax.
When our body is stressed, it’s harder to fall asleep. This is because the hormone which regulates sleep—melatonin—operates inversely to cortisol, the stress hormone. At night, our cortisol production ceases, allowing sleep-promoting melatonin to take over. When you stay up on social media, the increased cortisol levels dealy melatonin production.
As diurnal animals, humans are programmed to have circadian rhythms that roughly mimic the patterns of the sun. Among other factors, our brain relies on sunlight to regulate our sleep-wake cycle. During the day, our brain suppresses melatonin production, allowing us to stay alert and awake. In the evening, as the amount of sunlight decreases, our brain begins producing melatonin, inducing sleepiness.
Unfortunately, in today’s modern world, sunlight isn’t the only light we see. We live in a world of bright fluorescent lighting, with smartphones and computer screens in front of our eyes for much of the day. The more blue light we’re exposed to, the later our brain delays melatonin production. This is why nighttime social media use can be especially disruptive to sleep. We flood our eyes with blue light at a time when we need to be falling asleep.
Once you do fall asleep, social media notifications can still disrupt the quality of your sleep. The ideal environment for sleep is a dark, cool, and quiet room. If your phone is constantly buzzing, beeping, or lighting up, that impacts the quality of your sleep environment.
Whether you call them Generation Z or the iGeneration, today’s kids and teenagers (born between 1995 and the mid 2010s) grew up in a different world than previous generations. While that statement is true for every generation (it’s the basis of generational divides, after all), Gen Z are different than previous generations because they grew up with iPhone or iPads in hand, and have only known a life connected to the internet.
About half of kids have a social media account by age 12. By the time they’re teens, that increases to 80%. Smartphone use is nearly ubiquitous among teenagers (95%), and 45% of teenagers say they’re online “almost constantly”—a stat that has nearly doubled in just three years:
Kids and teens tend to be the first adopters of social media, and they’re even more likely to be heavy users. Unfortunately, they also need the most sleep of all of us.
Sleep needs vary by age. Infants can sleep up to 20 hours a day. As they grow, kids need less sleep, but in the teen years, they still need 9 hours of sleep (1 to 2 hours more than adults).
According to the research, sleep disorders are just as prevalent among children as they are with adults. Up to half of kids will experience a sleep problem, with 10% to 30% of children suffering from insomnia.
Delayed sleep phase disorder, a circadian rhythm disorder in which the individual naturally falls asleep—and wakes up—later than “normal,” affects 7% to 16% of teens. This disorder also commonly sees onset during adolescence—a time that inconveniently coincides with earlier school start times.
While sleep issues are common in today’s society, Gallup’s research has found that the younger you are, the more likely you are to have sleep issues. The most well-rested Americans tend to be seniors aged 65 and older, with nearly 70% enjoying sufficient sleep. The percentage of Americans getting sufficient sleep for their age ticks downward with each younger demographic, reaching its culmination among 18 to 29-year-olds, where only about half are getting enough sleep.
The relationship between social media and sleep issues persists among children and teens, just as it does in adults. However, the effects—and the associated risks—among this younger population are even more pronounced.
Without adequate sleep, our physical, emotional, and cognitive functioning all suffer. In the long-term, sleep deprivation can lead to adverse outcomes like heart disease and decreased immune function.
For younger kids and teens, the potential effects of sleep deprivation are even more concerning. The disruptions to emotional and mental development they suffer from inadequate sleep can affect how well they do in school, their ability to make friends, and their overall quality of life. Researchers worry social media-related sleep problems may have long-lasting impacts on the rest of their lives.
In a large 2015 study of over 5,000 Canadian tweens and teens aged 11 to 20, researchers found that only a third got sufficient sleep on a regular basis. At the same time, the majority of the students reported using social media for at least 1 hour per day.
Researchers observed a strong correlation between the kids’ social media use and both the quantity and quality of their sleep. The more they used social media, the less sleep they got. The students who used social media for an hour were twice as likely to have short sleep, while the students who used social media for 5 hours were three times as likely.
In one 2016 study of over 450 teenagers, researchers measured the teens’ social media use (overall and at night), as well as other factors related to their well-being, including sleep quality, self-esteem, and levels of anxiety and depression.
The teens who used social media more were more likely to have poor sleep quality. They were also more likely to have lower self-esteem and higher levels of anxiety and depression. Regardless of how much they used social media, the teens who were more emotionally invested in social media were also more likely to suffer from poor sleep, as well as higher levels of anxiety and depression.
Many researchers attribute the negative impact of social media to the counterintuitive feelings of social isolation it evokes. People are prone to chat online, date online, and play video games online. As a result, they’re less likely to connect in person.
As social creatures, this lack of physical social interaction can be damaging to our well-being. Feelings of loneliness have also been linked to sleep loss.
In 2014, researchers observed a group of preteens who spent five days in nature, away from screens and social media. They wanted to see how removal from social media affected their emotional wellbeing. At the end of their nature camp, the treatment group performed significantly better at recognizing nonverbal emotional cues, when compared to controls.
These results led researchers to postulate that more time away from social media, and more time personally interacting with others, could improve mental health.
We’ve seen that excessively using social media can be damaging to our sleep and mental health. Is the reverse true? Fortunately, yes—studies show that taking a break from social media is good for you.
A 2016 Denmark study of over 1,000 participants split people into two groups. The control group maintained their regular Facebook use, while the other group stopped using Facebook for a week. The group that stopped using Facebook experienced a marked improvement in overall satisfaction with their lives, and they also displayed more positive emotions.
Separate studies have found that taking a break from nighttime social media use (defined as using social media 1 hour before bed) can result in improved sleep quality.
While social media creates problems for our sleep and emotional wellbeing, it’s not all bad. Many of us appreciate being able to keep up with friends and family. Moreover, social media is increasingly required for staying connected in a modern world.
So, what can we do to stay engaged with social media—without it ruining our sleep and our health? Follow these tips for regulating your social media use and getting better sleep.
Studies show that people typically spend more time using social media than they realize or planned. In deference (or perhaps an admission) of how they contribute to poor mental health, many social media apps and smartphones now tell you how much time you’re spending on the platform. Use these stats to help monitor your daily usage.
On the iPhone, you can even drill down to your “After Bedtime” use.
Analyze how social media makes you feel, and around what time you start to not feel so great. That’s a perfect amount of time to use as your cut-off point.
If you’re not sure you’ll be able to stick to it on your own, use programs that block your ability to access certain websites (like facebook.com). Follow these links for instructions on how to do this on Safari (iPhone and iPad), the Chrome browser (mobile and desktop), and Android devices.
Regardless of whatever limit you impose on your daytime social media use, you want to log off at least 60 minutes before bedtime. This gives your brain adequate time to mentally unplug and relax.
If 60 minutes seems impossible, start with 30 minutes and gradually increase to an hour.
In addition to social media, you should stop using all electronic devices at least 1 hour before bed. Even before this hour, whenever you use social media (or other electronic devices) at night, turn the red light filter on your phone to block out energizing blue light.
How can you fill those 60 minutes, without social media or TV to entertain you? Create a relaxing bedtime routine filled with activities that relax you, body and soul. You might spend this time reading, meditating, and otherwise getting ready for bed.
Leave your phone and computer out of your bedroom at all times. This will not only make it easier for you to avoid checking social media before bed, but it will also help you get up in the morning (you’ll likely want to rush to check what notifications you missed).
Finally, if you wake up in the middle of the night, do not turn on your phone. Try staying in bed, in the dark, and waiting to fall back asleep. If 20 minutes goes by and you’re still not asleep, leave the bedroom and go do another calm activity in another part of your home, like reading a book. Whatever you do, don’t check social media!