For early adolescents, frequent social media use, watching emotional or violent videos, and use of social media from an early age were found to be significantly associated with less sleep on school nights, according to a study published in the Journal of Adolescent Health.

Conversely, the study also found that if parents restrict smartphone and online use in the evening before bedtime or delay the age at which a child receives a smartphone, the children had the potential for an increased amount of sleep.

"We need to move beyond the sole focus on the amount of time adolescents spend on technologies before bed," said lead author Linda Charmaraman, PhD, director of the Youth, Media and Wellbeing Research Lab at the Wellesley Centers for Women, in a press release. "Understanding the bedtime habits and online content that negatively affect sleep helps us design more effective interventions for parents and practitioners to encourage healthier social technology use. This study is a first step in that direction."

In the study, the researchers surveyed 772 students in grades 6 through 8 from 4 schools in the northeastern United States. The surveys, conducted between February and June 2019, asked questions regarding social media, internet, and phone use; content of websites viewed; their own social media post content; behaviors within 1 hour of bedtime; and the bedtime, sleep duration, and phone/screen restrictions set by the students’ parents.

Within the study, the researchers controlled for confounding factors such as gender, age, race/ethnicity, 2-parent household, and eligibility for free or reduced-price lunch. The researchers found that the students who more frequently checked social media, engaged in problematic behaviors on the internet, and saw more emotional or violent videos had a significant association with a delayed ability to go to sleep and fewer hours of sleep on school nights.

Specifically, those participants who acknowledged that they lost sleep at night noted that they couldn’t stop activities they were engaging in online, resulting in going to bed later and sleeping less.

Additionally, participants viewing posts related to a thin ideal weight were found to have significantly reduced sleep at night. Further, participants viewing messages with content related to drugs and/or drinking had significantly delayed ability to go to sleep. Also, watching YouTube videos before bed was associated with a delayed ability to go to sleep and less sleep and checking social media before bed was associated with a delayed ability to go to sleep.

However, the authors of the study noted that reading books was the only behavior before bedtime that was associated with an ability to go to sleep earlier.

"Reduced sleep is associated with many adverse physical, emotional, and educational outcomes," said senior author Elizabeth B. Klerman, MD, PhD, of the Department of Neurology at the Massachusetts General Hospital, in the press release. "The results of this study provide evidence of modifiable factors that negatively affect sleep duration. Individuals (eg, children, parents, practitioners, teachers) and communities can work to change behaviors that affect sleep."

Quantity, content, and context of social media use may affect adolescents' sleep. Wellesley, MA: Wellesley Centers for Women; November 2, 2020. Accessed November 12, 2020.