Social Media Use Disrupts Sleep in Young Adults

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Young adults who check social media most frequently have triple the sleep disturbance of peers who check less, according to new research from the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine.

This is one of the first pieces of evidence that social media use really can impact your sleep.

Young adults who spend a lot of time on social media during the day or check it frequently throughout the week are more likely to suffer sleep disturbances than their peers who use social media less, according to new research from the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine.

Published online and scheduled for the April issue of the journal Preventive Medicine, the study indicates that physicians should consider asking young adult patients about social media habits when assessing sleep issues. The research was supported by the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

“This is one of the first pieces of evidence that social media use really can impact your sleep,” said lead author Jessica C. Levenson, Ph.D., a postdoctoral researcher in Pitt’s Department of Psychiatry. “And it uniquely examines the association between social media use and sleep among young adults who are, arguably, the first generation to grow up with social media.”

In 2014, Dr. Levenson and her colleagues sampled 1,788 U.S. adults ages 19 through 32, using questionnaires to determine social media use and an established measurement system to assess sleep disturbances.

The questionnaires asked about the 11 most popular social media platforms at the time: Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Google Plus, Instagram, Snapchat, Reddit, Tumblr, Pinterest, Vine and LinkedIn.

On average, the participants used social media a total of 61 minutes per day and visited various social media accounts 30 times per week. The assessment showed that nearly 30 percent of the participants had high levels of sleep disturbance.

The participants who reported most frequently checking social media throughout the week had three times the likelihood of sleep disturbances, compared with those who checked least frequently. And participants who spent the most total time on social media throughout the day had twice the risk of sleep disturbance, compared to peers who spent less time on social media.

“This may indicate that frequency of social media visits is a better predictor of sleep difficulty than overall time spent on social media,” Dr. Levenson explained. “If this is the case, then interventions that counter obsessive ‘checking’ behavior may be most effective.”

Senior author Brian A. Primack, M.D., Ph.D., assistant vice chancellor for health and society in Pitt’s Schools of the Health Sciences, emphasized that more study is needed, particularly to determine whether social media use contributes to sleep disturbance, whether sleep disturbance contributes to social media use – or both.

For example, social media may disturb sleep if it is:

  •     Displacing sleep, such as when a user stays up late posting photos on Instagram.
  •     Promoting emotional, cognitive or physiological arousal, such as when engaging in a contentious discussion on Facebook.
  •     Disrupting circadian rhythms through the bright light emitted by the devices used to access social media accounts.

Alternatively, young adults who have difficulty sleeping may subsequently use social media as a pleasurable way to pass the time when they can’t fall asleep or return to sleep.

“It also may be that both of these hypotheses are true,” said Dr. Primack, also director of Pitt’s Center for Research on Media, Technology and Health. “Difficulty sleeping may lead to increased use of social media, which may in turn lead to more problems sleeping. This cycle may be particularly problematic with social media because many forms involve interactive screen time that is stimulating and rewarding and, therefore, potentially detrimental to sleep.”

Additional researchers on this study are Ariel Shensa, M.A., Jaime E. Sidani, Ph.D., and Jason B. Colditz, M.Ed., all of Pitt’s School of Medicine.

This research was funded by NIH grants T32-HL082610 from the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute and R01-CA140150 from the National Cancer Institute.

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