Heavy Technology Use Linked to Fatigue, Stress and Depression in Young Adults

What can we, as individuals, do to protect our health from the negative impact of the ubiquitous technology in our society? Quite simply, turn it off, and get some good sleep.
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Modern technology is affecting our sleep. The artificial light from TV and computer screens affects melatonin production and throws off circadian rhythms, preventing deep, restorative sleep.

New research out of the University of Gothenburg, Sweden reinforces this fact, specifically relating to young adults. Doctoral student Sara Thomée and her colleagues at the University of Gothenburg's Sahlgrenska Academy conducted four studies to find out the effects of heavy computer and cell phone use on the sleep quality, stress levels, and general mental health of young adults.

For the study, Thomée and her team asked 4,100 young adults between age 20 and 24 to fill out questionnaires. They also interviewed 32 of them who were considered heavy information and communication technology (ICT) users. The researchers analyzed and compiled the data, and the results revealed that intensive use of cell phones and computers can be linked to an increase in stress, sleep disorders and depressive symptoms in young adults.

Some of the more specific findings are:

• Heavy cell phone use showed an increase in sleep disorders in men and an increase in depressive symptoms in both men and women.

• Those constantly accessible via cell phones were the most likely to report mental health issues.

• Men who use computers intensively were more likely to develop sleeping problems.

• Regular, late night computer use was associated with sleep disorders, stress and depressive symptoms in both men and women.

• Frequently using a computer without breaks further increases the risk of stress, sleeping problems and depressive symptoms in women.

• A combination of both heavy computer use and heavy mobile use makes the associations even stronger.

So, what's behind this link between technology use and negative health symptoms? The researchers have not yet fully determined why heavy technology users are more likely to have sleep disorders, higher stress and mental health issues, but one theory is that people with these symptoms are more likely to reach out and contact friends and family via technology.

I tend to think that the relationship between technology and stress, sleep disorders and depression has more to do with the overuse of technology in our society, especially among young people. If you're a parent like I am, than you know firsthand how difficult it can be to get children to turn off the computer or put down their phone and stop texting so you can, just maybe, have a real conversation.

This is a growing and serious public health hazard that should be acknowledged and addressed by both the medical community and technology industry. It's been shown that the light from TV and computer screens affects melatonin production and melanopsin stimulation, and throws off our circadian rhythms. This interrupts or prevents deep, restorative sleep, causing an increase in stress and depressive symptoms.

In the words of head researcher Sara Thomée, "Public health advice should therefore include information on the healthy use of this technology." I couldn't agree more. Just like alcohol ads, so should technology companies carry warnings on their products and in their advertisements. "Text responsibly." "Don't surf, then sleep." You get the idea.

What can we, as individuals, do to protect our health from the negative impact of the ubiquitous technology in our society? Quite simply, turn it off, and get some good sleep. When you are on the computer for any length of time, take more frequent breaks and impose limits on the amount of time you spend online. Trust me, the world will wait patiently for another Facebook post or text from you.

Remember, people need an average of seven to eight hours of restful sleep to fully take advantage of its restorative power and avoid daytime symptoms of fatigue. So turn off your TV and computer at least one hour before you go to sleep. Don't sleep with your cell phone on and next to your bed. (Few things are more frustrating than being awakened in the middle of the night by an unimportant text message.)

Re-claim your bedroom for its intended purpose: restful sleep. Move the TV and computer out of the bedroom, or at the very least, don't watch TV or work on the computer too close to bedtime. Stick to a bedtime routine. Get at least seven to eight hours of sleep every night. Try to go to sleep and wake up around the same time every day, even on weekends. Try to keep to within 20 minutes of the same time each morning and night.

Before bed, do activities that will promote sleepiness, such as a taking a warm bath or reading a book or magazine. It also helps to maintain a cool temperature in your bedroom. A cool but comfortable temperature is ideal for sleep. Too warm and you will be fitful; too cold, however, can be uncomfortable and disturb your sleep.

Exercise regularly but not after the late afternoon. Even though exercise helps regulate sleep, rigorous exercise causes endorphins in the body to circulate which can have a stimulant effect, and keep you awake longer at night.

Stay away from caffeine at night. The effects of caffeine are different from person to person and may last hours after your last cup of coffee, so make your last cup of coffee, regular tea or soda earlier in the day. Avoid alcohol and medicines that make you drowsy. Even if you think it is helping you fall asleep initially, alcohol and medicines that makes you drowsy may affect your sleep throughout the night.

And finally, if you feel that you are suffering from persistent sleep disorder, get checked out by a qualified sleep doctor. Regular, healthy sleep is one of the best things you can do for your mental and physical health.

For more by David Volpi, M.D., P.C., F.A.C.S., click here.

For more on sleep, click here.

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