More than one in five teenagers say they “almost always” wake up during the night to look at or post messages on social media, according to a new report.

More than a third of 12- to 15-year-olds say they do so at least once a week.

In addition to disrupting sleep, this use of social media at night also seems to affect teens’ overall happiness, with lower levels of wellbeing reported by those who wake to use social networks.

Meanwhile, the paper also has implications for the debate on whether teenagers should be allowed to start school later, to give them more time to sleep in the morning. The researchers say their data suggest such a change could do more harm than good.

“Having a regular wake-time and using social media during the night appear to be more important in determining whether a young person is always tired during the day than the time they go to bed, how long they spend in bed, and having a regular bedtime,” says Kimberly Horton of Wales Institute of Social and Economic Research Data (WISERD), based at Cardiff University.

“It seems [very] important to discourage adolescents from using social media during the night. No amount of effort to develop regular bedtimes or to lengthen the time in bed would seem to be able to compensate for the disruption that this can cause.”

girl in bed with cat and tablet

Tired at school

The team’s findings on teenage sleep patterns are drawn from statistical analysis of a survey of 412 12- and 13-year-old students (in year eight) and 436 14- and 15-year-old students (in year 10) in secondary schools across Wales.

The adolescents were asked how often they wake at night to use social media. Some 22 percent of year-eight pupils, and 23 percent among those in year 10, answered “almost always”.

A further 14 percent of the younger group, and 15 percent of the older, said they did so at least once a week.

Those surveyed were also asked how often they felt tired at school. More than half of those who reported “almost always” waking to use social media also said they “almost always” go to school feeling tired.

This was much higher than the overall percentage of respondents saying they “almost always” feel tired at school, which was 32 percent among year 8 pupils and 39 percent among year 10s.

Staying up late

The study found substantial proportions of pupils reporting going to bed very late: 17 percent of year eight and 28 percent of year 10s said they put their heads down at midnight or later on a school night. Among these, six percent of the younger group and 8 percent of the older claimed to go to bed later than 1am.

However, the study finds that, in the case of the younger group, the amount of time spent in bed actually seemed less important in terms of whether the child then reported feeling tired at school than whether they woke up during the night to use social media.

This was not the case among the older group. However, even among this group, those saying they woke up to use social media every night were still twice as likely to say they were constantly tired than those who never did so.

The researchers also found a strong association between students reporting having a regular time when they woke up in the morning and not feeling tired.

Let them sleep in?

Last week, Paul Kelley, a former headteacher now working at Oxford University’s Sleep and Circadian Neuroscience Institute, told the British Science Festival that school start times should be put back to combat sleep-deprivation among pupils.

But the WISERD paper argues against later school start times. It says that pupils would be less likely to have regular waking times as a result, re-iterating that routine waking times seemed from the survey data to be very important in terms of making a child less likely to feel tired.

“Having a regular morning routine may actually prove to be a very important feature in helping adolescents concentrate and enjoy their learning, something that may actually be undermined by changes to the school day,” write the paper’s authors.


This text is published here under a Creative Commons License.
Author: Chris Jones-Cardiff University
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