Technology

Bleary-Eyed Students Can't Stop Texting, Even to Sleep, a Researcher Finds

Avital Greener for The Chronicle

Another buzz from her cellphone: Michelle Fox, of the U. of Rhode Island, awakens to tap out a reply. She'll go back to sleep ... until the next text message.
November 20, 2011

Michelle Fox had just fallen asleep when her cellphone buzzed on the night table. She read the text message from her friend, thought about answering it, but then remembered her early class and instead tried to fall back to sleep. But Ms. Fox, a senior at the University of Rhode Island, couldn't stop thinking about the message and how her friend might be upset with her if she didn't respond.

She had to answer the text.

Many people, especially young adults, feel a sense of attachment to their phones and view the devices as a social lifeline that they can't do without, even when the anxiety the phones produce keeps them up at night, say researchers studying students' use of cellphones.

Sue K. Adams, an assistant professor of human development and family studies at Rhode Island, wasn't thinking about cellphones when she asked her students to keep sleep journals—she was just curious about their sleeping habits. But through those journal entries, she began to notice the effects phones were having on their sleep.

"They were coming back to me and a lot of them were saying, 'That's great, and I learned a lot about my sleep, but you didn't ask me about my technology use, because that's really waking me up in the middle of the night,'" Ms. Adams said.

That realization prompted a study of more than 200 students at the university to further examine what role cellphones play in their sleep habits. Students, the researchers found, were losing an average of 45 minutes of sleep each week because of their cellphones.

The phones were disrupting sleep and, in turn, were associated with higher rates of anxiety and depression because of insufficient rest. While depression is a well-documented side effect of a lack of sleep, Ms. Adams said, the anxiety element was something new.

Students already average a "sleep debt" of two hours each night, according to Ms. Adams's study, which reflects similar findings from national sleep studies. Her study and others suggest that college students need nine and one-quarter hours of sleep each night, though they get an average of only seven hours. So losing those extra 45 minutes hurts even more. The students who had the highest rates of technology use also had higher levels of anxiety and depression compared with the rest of the students in the Rhode Island study.

The main message of her study, Ms. Adams said, is that college students struggle to set boundaries for themselves. Unlike high-school students, many of them don't have anyone around telling them to put the phone away.

For Ms. Adams and other researchers studying the topic, finding out why students feel compelled to always answer their phones at night is an important piece of the puzzle. The most common reason, as reported by several researchers, is wanting to not miss out on something. An invitation to a party, a bit of gossip from a friend, or a text from a significant other all warrant staying awake just a little bit longer. Like the chicken and the egg, it's hard to determine which comes first: the unwillingness to disconnect or the anxiety and loss of sleep.

"Students who feel compelled to wake up in the middle of the night and answer texts and answer phone calls," Ms. Adams said, "you would imagine there's something about them that's driving them to feel like they have to stay connected. And for some of these students I think it really is anxiety—not wanting to be left out or feel like they miss something."

Never Alone

For Ms. Fox, the Rhode Island student, leaving the phone nearby while she slept was just a matter of habit. Several students in her class said they slept with their phones under their pillows. Her friends often talk about how they feel "naked" without their phones.

Scott W. Campbell, an associate professor of communication studies at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, said students feel attached to their phones to the extent that they couldn't give them up if someone asked them to.

Mr. Campbell cited a 2006 experiment by James E. Katz, a Rutgers University mobile-communication expert, in which 82 of Mr. Katz's students agreed to give up their cellphones for 48 hours to get a renewed perspective on technology use in their daily lives. Only 12 of those students made it the full two days of the experiment without their phones.

This dependency, which some classify as an addiction, has drastically altered the college experience, said Naomi S. Baron, a professor of linguistics and executive director of the Center for Teaching, Research and Learning at American University. The once-familiar scene of a college student sitting alone in the grass or strolling down a path on campus is gone, she said. Now everyone is on a cellphone.

"My major concern about this continual connectivity," Ms. Baron said, is that students are being deprived of "this wonderful opportunity that college used to give."

When people are alone with their own thoughts, she said, that's when they have great epiphanies and get to discover who they are. Ms. Baron's book Always On: Language in an Online and Mobile World examines the darker side of technology, which she said is making us shallower people by allowing us to control our interactions with others. It's a Catch-22: Technology allows people to keep others at a distance, but at the same time it creates the expectation that people are, and should always be, available.

Mr. Campbell, who holds a more optimistic view of technology's consequences, said we need to recognize the habit-forming nature of the cellphone. It's not easy to just shut your phone off. "It's almost like an automatic reflex now," he said, "to look for your phone, to see if you've got new messages, even to feel your phone vibrate in your pocket only to find out it didn't vibrate."

While Mr. Campbell agrees that students should be more conscious about unplugging once in awhile, he acknowledges the positive consequences of hyperconnectedness. Students, he said, can multitask in ways generations before them never could. "I think some of these students are actually following class while they're on Facebook or they're texting," he said.

Multitasking, though arguably part of young adults' nature, doesn't translate to good sleep. But nighttime, when students should be resting, is the preferred time to check in with others, according to the students in Ms. Adams's study.

"A lot of students are saying that the only time they really have to socialize is at night," she said.

Cellphone Courtship

That soft buzz of the cellphone next to her bed awakens Ms. Fox. It's her boyfriend. She types out a reply to his text and falls back to sleep. Another buzz. She again opens her eyes, replies to the message, and returns to sleep.

Even though she's tired, Ms. Fox feels compelled to respond. Texting is a main form of communication for the couple, so she always answers messages from him.

Sustaining a relationship through texting is a common practice for many students, and texting often replaces the traditional first date now, Mr. Campbell said.

Those preliminary text messages allow students to decide if that person is someone with whom they want to pursue a relationship—adding another layer of importance to their cellphones.

When texting, students are able to take their time to craft witty responses, portraying themselves the way they want to.

"It can be hard to negotiate these sensitive interpersonal situations face to face," Mr. Campbell said, particularly for young people who are still maturing socially.

"The awkwardness of asking somebody out on a date, the awkwardness of sharing your feelings with somebody." he said. "Texting is a way of having a safe area."