What to do about teen 'junk sleep' syndrome

The problem is technology -- and technology is part of the solution, too

What if I told you about a dangerous virus spreading through high schools and middle schools, a virus that now infects between a quarter and a third of the teen population.

The symptoms of this virus include exhaustion, depression, irritability, decreased creativity, reduced socialization, acne, poor performance, degraded immune functioning, aggressiveness and the inability to handle complex tasks.

If left untreated, the symptoms last for years -- well into adulthood -- and can ruin grades, reduce educational options, damage self-esteem, stunt growth, encourage drug and alcohol use, and dramatically increase the likelihood of car accidents.

And what if I told you this virus was preventable and, once contracted, treatable. As a parent, would you do nothing about it?

Here's the shocking part: Such a virus does exist, and most parents do nothing about it -- neither do schools, doctors nor society at large. The virus is teen technology culture, and it's causing serious harm to a whole generation of kids.

How the virus works

As we all know, teens these days have plenty of technology at their disposal -- cell phones, PCs, media players, video games, home entertainment systems and more.

The combination of school, sports and other extracurricular activities, as well as excess homework, means the only time many kids have to socialize with friends -- the No. 1 priority for most teens -- is between, say, 10 p.m., when their homework is done and around 6 a.m., when they have to get up and get ready for school.

Parents may think their kids are going to bed, but the kids are, in fact, just beginning to socialize. Late on school nights, kids are logging onto MySpace or Facebook; IMing friends; calling or texting them on their cell phones, and playing online video games. This electronically enabled social life runs deep into the night.

Teens are tired all day from staying up late, so they cope with fatigue by drinking energy drinks, Starbucks coffee drinks and soda, all of which are loaded with caffeine, which degrades the quality of sleep. Many teenagers are too tired to stay awake until late at night, so they take naps at bedtime, then wake up in the middle of the night to socialize.

Teens tend to sleep with cell phones on, leaving them next to or actually on their beds. Kids who can't sleep get bored and call or text the teens who can sleep, waking them up at random hours of the night. The newly awakened teens go ahead and call or chat with their other friends, waking them up and so on.

This chain of social sleeplessness ripples unseen through the nation's teen population every single night. Many parents don't even know it's happening, and those who do tend not to understand the extent of the problem or the damage it's causing. The result of all this is that kids are getting far less sleep than they should, and even the little sleep they do get is constantly interrupted.

It's called "junk sleep," or "semisomnia."

How bad is the problem?

Experts say teens need more than nine hours of sleep per night, but many get less than 6.5 hours. And that is often interrupted by cell phone calls and text messages.

Sleep happens in cycles of light and deep sleep, during which the body repairs itself, builds its immune system, forms long-term memories, and handles stress and emotional problems. Interrupted sleep plays havoc with these patterns and compromises the body's ability to grow and function.

Various studies estimate that between 20% and 30% of adolescents suffer from sleep deprivation. A 1998 survey of more than 3,000 high school students found a correlation between poor grades and reduced sleep.

Recently published research from the University of California, Berkeley, found that sleep deprivation causes the emotional centers of human brains to overreact to bad experiences. The part of the prefrontal lobe that moderates emotions starts to shut down with sleep deprivation, according to researchers. They suggest that while some mental illnesses are usually thought to lead to sleep deprivation, the reverse may, in fact, be the case: The lack of sleep may be causing the mental illness.

Teen sleep problems are also associated with depression and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Sadly, these problems are far too often "solved" through medication, rather than meeting the teen's basic needs, like healthy food and quality sleep.

A U.K. organization called The Sleep Council conducted an online poll of 1,000 teenagers between 12 and 16 years old, and found that nearly a quarter fell asleep with TVs, music players or "other machinery" still running. Some 40% of teens surveyed said they feel tired every day.

A recent study published in the medical publication, Pediatrics, found that 12-to-14-year-old boys who played video games a few hours before bedtime took longer to fall asleep, spent less time in what they call "slow-wave sleep," which helps people form "factual memories," and spent more time in non-REM sleep. Tests showed a decline in "verbal memory performance" after a long game.

More than half the car crashes caused by drivers under the age of 25 resulted from drowsiness and fatigue, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. That's far more accidents than were caused by drunk driving.

How to stop the virus

The easy solution for people who don't have kids in school is to just blame the parents. And, of course, parents do have the biggest opportunity to do something about this crisis. Parents can check cell phone bills to see when calls and text messages are coming in and going out. They can also take cell phones away from kids and turn off wireless routers or modems at night. And, of course, parents can educate their kids about the damage junk sleep causes.

But this isn't a parental advice column. I'm calling for support from the industry.

All cell phone carriers should offer -- and cell phone customers should demand -- parentally controlled shut-off times for their teen-owned cell phones. Specially configured phones shouldn't be able to make nonemergency calls or send nonemergency messages between 11 p.m. until 6 a.m. on school nights and during school hours. This is just common sense.

I'd love to see the widespread use of special boxes with keys controlled by the parents that shut down electricity to PCs, TVs, video game consoles and other junk sleep enablers at night using a parent-set timer.

The problem of junk sleep and semisomnia caused by the teen technology culture virus is everybody's problem. Exhausted teens are out there driving cars on public highways and collectively represent our future. Teens want to socialize all night with their cell phones and computers. But they need education and sound physical and mental health.

This virus is real, it affects everyone and its solution requires the support of teens, their parents and the technology companies that are already profiting from the products and services that make the epidemic possible.

It's time for everyone to wake up and finally do something about the teen junk sleep syndrome.

Mike Elgan writes about technology and global tech culture. Contact Mike at mike.elgan@elgan.com or his blog, The Raw Feed.

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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