Two recently completed research projects looked at the relation between social media use and sleep. While they came to two different conclusions, they seem to point to a potential spiral effect.
High social media use causes sleep problems
Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh studied 1,788 Americans ages 19 to 32 from across the country in 2014. Participants filled out questionnaires about the time they spent each day on Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Google+, Instagram, SnapChat, Reddit, Tumblr, Pinterest, Vine and LinkedIn and the frequency each week. Researchers also assess sleep disturbances with an established scientific system.
On average, participants used social media about an hour per day and 30 times per week. Nearly 30 per cent had high levels of sleep disturbance.
Adjusting for socio-demographic differences, researchers found that participants in the highest 25 per cent of use per day were nearly twice as likely to have sleep disturbances as those in the lowest quartile. Participants in the highest 25 per cent of frequency per week were nearly three times as likely to have sleep problems as those in the lowest quartile. According to lead researcher Jessica C. Levenson:
“This may indicate that frequency of social media visits is a better predictor of sleep difficulty than overall time spent on social media…. If this is the case, then interventions that counter obsessive checking behavior may be most effective.”
The researcher team suggests physicians consider asking patients about social media habits when assessing sleep issues. Interestingly, though, they acknowledge the possibility that participants used social media to pass the time when they could not fall asleep or return to sleep.
Sleep problems cause high Facebook use
While a significant amount of research has looked at how technology affects sleep, researchers at the University of California, Irvine (UCI) turned the idea around and looked at how sleep affected technology usage.
The researchers collected data from 24 male and 42 female UCI undergraduate students for seven days during the spring of 2014. Taking into consideration the students’ gender, age, course load and deadlines, the team of researchers measured students’ behaviour, activities and stress levels. The team did this by using sensors and installing software on the participants’ computers and smart phones that logged and time stamped when they switched from one application window to another or used their phones. Students also completed a sleep survey each morning and an end-of-day survey each night.
The UCI team found that a lack of sleep — which causes tiredness, irritability (bad mood) and distractibility — leads to more frequent online activities, such as browsing Facebook. According to lead researcher Gloria Mark:
“When you get less sleep, you’re more prone to distraction…. If you’re being distracted, what do you do? You go to Facebook. It’s lightweight, it’s easy, and you’re tired.”
Mark and her team found that the less sleep students had, the more frequently their attention shifted among different computer screens, suggesting heightened distractibility.
The UCI researchers say their results reveal a direct link among chronic lack of sleep, worsening mood and greater reliance on Facebook browsing. The Pittsburgh researchers say high social media use is linked to sleep disturbances. So lack of sleep can cause higher social media use, which, in turn, can cause sleep problems, which, in turn, can cause… a spiralling problem. The question now becomes how best to break the spiral.