Up 2 L8: High School, College Students Losing Sleep Over Tech

Tech-obsessed youth don't put gadgets down, even for sleep.

Aug. 30, 2010 -- For Gabby Gomez, a good night's sleep is a rare commodity.

The 19-year-old college student attends California Lutheran University in Thousand Oaks full-time and also works full-time at a public relations firm.

"I work Monday, Wednesday and Friday and go to school on Tuesday and Thursday," said Gomez.

The full class load and full work load are grueling enough to make anyone tired, but Gomez doesn't think that's nearly enough.

"While I'm at school, I also work. I work straight from my phone," she said. "I answer e-mails or take calls, and I run social media for my clients from my phone."

Indeed, thanks to the technology at her fingertips, her typical work day never seems to end.

"I start answering e-mails I may have missed around 7 a.m., I get into the office around 9 a.m., work until 5, and then I continue to e-mail back and forth after hours -- that could be up until 2 or 3 a.m."

Gomez admits that she is BlackBerry-obsessed. She takes calls or answers e-mails at all hours of the night, and does the same whenever she's out with friends. She said she aims for five hours of sleep a night, but usually doesn't get that much.

Experts say Gomez is hardly unique. A growing body of research suggests that more and more young people are becoming sleep-deprived because they can't put down their high-tech toys.

In recent years, studies have suggested that habitual Internet use and computer gaming can lead to lost sleep. A 2004 study in the journal Sleep revealed that adolescents with a TV set, gaming computer or Internet connection in their rooms spent measurably less time in bed. And some sleep researchers say that late-night use of gadgets with light-emitting screens can also have a detrimental impact on sleep.

What could make matters worse is that children and young adults require a lot more sleep than adults -- and ignoring this basic need in favor of texting or surfing the web can lead to serious problems.

"Insufficient sleep is associated with huge life factors, such as mood issues," said Dr. Helene Emsellem, director of The Center for Sleep and Wake Disorders in Chevy Chase, Md. "They are also more likely to be overweight."

"It can lead to social isolation, a lack of social skills development and interfere with the ability to function in school or at work," said Alan Hilfer, chief psychologist in the department of psychiatry at Maimonides Medical Center in New York City.

He added that young people's relationship with technology borders on addiction.

"Overuse of the Internet has an addictive quality, feeding into some aspects of compulsive or impulsive disorders when teens or college students are involved," he said.

Hilfer added that they may suffer from withdrawal if there's no access to a computer, and they also find themselves needing more in terms of software, upgrades and more time online.

Does Tech 'Addiction' Lead to Less Sleep?

"All of this combines to create a scenario where kids are sneaking the computer or a phone into their beds and they're up until 3 or 4 in the morning," he said.

That's a scenario that prevents their bodies from meeting a basic need.

"Adolescents have a big sleep requirement. Most studies have shown that they need about 9.25 hours of sleep a night," said Emsellem.

Most don't get that, she said, because of the early start of the school day, their participation in extracurricular activities, school work and the amount of time they spend on the phone or online at night.

The obsession extends into the college years as well.

"If you visit a boy's dorm or a boy's apartment and there are four people living there, three will be on the Internet playing some sort of interactive game for hours," said Hilfer.

"The difference in the college population is they have flexibilities with time that high school and junior high school kids don't have," said Emsellem. "College campuses don't wind down until very late, and kids cope with that in college by altering their sleep schedule."

Parents Must Set Boundaries, Experts Say

Despite these findings, a survey by the National Sleep Foundation found that 90 percent of parents believe their teenage child is getting enough sleep.

"That's an awareness problem and a lack of education about the biological changes in sleep associated with adolescence," said Emsellem.

That also means that parents need to take charge and carefully monitor their teens' use of technology -- thought this may be easier said than done.

"Parents may have to take drastic measures, such as unplugging Wi-Fi or taking the computer away," said Hilfer. "Parents are desperately trying to get them to stop."

Michael Hall, a former principal and now a parenting consultant, took such drastic measures with his teenage sons, who are now 14 and 18.

"They both had to put their phones in the family room at night, where they'd charge," said Hall.

After his older son got an iPod Touch and could go on Facebook at night, Hall decided to shut off the home Wi-Fi connection at night.

Hall said now that his older son is in college, he's finally learned how important it is to get a good night's sleep.

"He got himself on a schedule pretty quick," said Hall.

Gabby Gomez also knows how important sleep is, but she manages to get through the days by consuming a lot of caffeine.

Even though she said she understands her sleep habits aren't healthy, the need for her BlackBerry trumps her need for sleep.

"I would be totally lost without it," she said.