What to do about teen 'junk sleep' syndrome

The problem is technology -- and technology is part of the solution, too

Recently published research from the University of California, Berkeley, found that sleep deprivation causes the emotional centers of human brains to overreact to bad experiences. The part of the prefrontal lobe that moderates emotions starts to shut down with sleep deprivation, according to researchers. They suggest that while some mental illnesses are usually thought to lead to sleep deprivation, the reverse may, in fact, be the case: The lack of sleep may be causing the mental illness.

Teen sleep problems are also associated with depression and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Sadly, these problems are far too often "solved" through medication, rather than meeting the teen's basic needs, like healthy food and quality sleep.

A U.K. organization called The Sleep Council conducted an online poll of 1,000 teenagers between 12 and 16 years old, and found that nearly a quarter fell asleep with TVs, music players or "other machinery" still running. Some 40% of teens surveyed said they feel tired every day.

A recent study published in the medical publication, Pediatrics, found that 12-to-14-year-old boys who played video games a few hours before bedtime took longer to fall asleep, spent less time in what they call "slow-wave sleep," which helps people form "factual memories," and spent more time in non-REM sleep. Tests showed a decline in "verbal memory performance" after a long game.

More than half the car crashes caused by drivers under the age of 25 resulted from drowsiness and fatigue, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. That's far more accidents than were caused by drunk driving.

How to stop the virus

The easy solution for people who don't have kids in school is to just blame the parents. And, of course, parents do have the biggest opportunity to do something about this crisis. Parents can check cell phone bills to see when calls and text messages are coming in and going out. They can also take cell phones away from kids and turn off wireless routers or modems at night. And, of course, parents can educate their kids about the damage junk sleep causes.

But this isn't a parental advice column. I'm calling for support from the industry.

All cell phone carriers should offer -- and cell phone customers should demand -- parentally controlled shut-off times for their teen-owned cell phones. Specially configured phones shouldn't be able to make nonemergency calls or send nonemergency messages between 11 p.m. until 6 a.m. on school nights and during school hours. This is just common sense.

I'd love to see the widespread use of special boxes with keys controlled by the parents that shut down electricity to PCs, TVs, video game consoles and other junk sleep enablers at night using a parent-set timer.

The problem of junk sleep and semisomnia caused by the teen technology culture virus is everybody's problem. Exhausted teens are out there driving cars on public highways and collectively represent our future. Teens want to socialize all night with their cell phones and computers. But they need education and sound physical and mental health.

This virus is real, it affects everyone and its solution requires the support of teens, their parents and the technology companies that are already profiting from the products and services that make the epidemic possible.

It's time for everyone to wake up and finally do something about the teen junk sleep syndrome.

Mike Elgan writes about technology and global tech culture. Contact Mike at mike.elgan@elgan.com

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