What to do about teen 'junk sleep' syndrome

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

What if I told you about a dangerous virus spreading through high schools and middle schools, a virus that now infects between a quarter and a third of the teen population.

The symptoms of this virus include exhaustion, depression, irritability, decreased creativity, reduced socialization, acne, poor performance, degraded immune functioning, aggressiveness and the inability to handle complex tasks.

If left untreated, the symptoms last for years -- well into adulthood -- and can ruin grades, reduce educational options, damage self-esteem, stunt growth, encourage drug and alcohol use, and dramatically increase the likelihood of car accidents.

And what if I told you this virus was preventable and, once contracted, treatable. As a parent, would you do nothing about it?

Here's the shocking part: Such a virus does exist, and most parents do nothing about it -- neither do schools, doctors nor society at large. The virus is teen technology culture, and it's causing serious harm to a whole generation of kids.

How the virus works

As we all know, teens these days have plenty of technology at their disposal -- cell phones, PCs, media players, video games, home entertainment systems and more.

The combination of school, sports and other extracurricular activities, as well as excess homework, means the only time many kids have to socialize with friends -- the No. 1 priority for most teens -- is between, say, 10 p.m., when their homework is done and around 6 a.m., when they have to get up and get ready for school.

Parents may think their kids are going to bed, but the kids are, in fact, just beginning to socialize. Late on school nights, kids are logging onto MySpace or Facebook; IMing friends; calling or texting them on their cell phones, and playing online video games. This electronically enabled social life runs deep into the night.

Teens are tired all day from staying up late, so they cope with fatigue by drinking energy drinks, Starbucks coffee drinks and soda, all of which are loaded with caffeine, which degrades the quality of sleep. Many teenagers are too tired to stay awake until late at night, so they take naps at bedtime, then wake up in the middle of the night to socialize.

Teens tend to sleep with cell phones on, leaving them next to or actually on their beds. Kids who can't sleep get bored and call or text the teens who can sleep, waking them up at random hours of the night. The newly awakened teens go ahead and call or chat with their other friends, waking them up and so on.

This chain of social sleeplessness ripples unseen through the nation's teen population every single night. Many parents don't even know it's happening, and those who do tend not to understand the extent of the problem or the damage it's causing. The result of all this is that kids are getting far less sleep than they should, and even the little sleep they do get is constantly interrupted.

It's called "junk sleep," or "semisomnia."

How bad is the problem?

Experts say teens need more than nine hours of sleep per night, but many get less than 6.5 hours. And that is often interrupted by cell phone calls and text messages.

Sleep happens in cycles of light and deep sleep, during which the body repairs itself, builds its immune system, forms long-term memories, and handles stress and emotional problems. Interrupted sleep plays havoc with these patterns and compromises the body's ability to grow and function.

Various studies estimate that between 20% and 30% of adolescents suffer from sleep deprivation. A 1998 survey of more than 3,000 high school students found a correlation between poor grades and reduced sleep.

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Mike Elgan

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