Is Technology Addiction Wrecking Our Sleep?

The Huffington Post   Catherine Pearson First Posted: 06/07/2011 12:13 BST Updated: 05/09/2011 10:12 BST

On any given day, technology offers an unending stream of stimuli: there are e-mails to be sent, text messages to be typed and video games to be played. A growing body of scientific literature is questioning exactly how these digital devices impact behavior and health -- including a mounting focus on how they affect both the quality and quantity of people's sleep.

"I have seen the full spectrum," said Dr. Nerina Ramlakhan, a sleep and energy therapist and author of the book "Tired But Wired -- The Essential Sleep Toolkit." "A barrister I worked with had terrible problems, he was exhausted all the time. He was sleeping with his Blackberry switched on and tucked into his pillowcase at night. To me, that's not normal behavior."

Perhaps not. However, technology addiction does seem to be a growing fact of modern life.

At the Capio Nightingale Hospital in London where Ramlakhan works, a new technology addiction service has been dedicated to adolescents or "screenagers," as Dr. Richard Graham, the program's lead technology addiction consultant has dubbed them. According to a statement from the hospital, a recent study found that 63 percent of children age 11 to 18 said they felt addicted to the Internet.

Through a focus on interpersonal therapy and examining what, exactly, they get from their constant technology use, patients in the program learn to wean themselves from a reliance on technology that can lead to problems the hospital listed as an increase in agitation, hyper-arousal and even possible depression.

According to Ramlakhan, a dependence on technology can also lead to an inability get enough good sleep, which research has shown is essential to maintaining energy levels, emotional stability, concentration, memory and even survival.

"I had one patient who said to me, 'It feels like I have a mad monkey in my head,'" she said, adding that people are can be so overloaded by technology mentally, they find it difficult to get the truly deep sleep the mind needs to rest and repair itself.

Another issue, according to a recent study by the US' National Sleep Foundation, is that the artificial light released by various technologies can suppress melatonin, a hormone produced in the brain that helps control the body's sleep-and-wake cycle.

Yet another final potential problem is simpler still: technology is so engrossing, it keeps people up late at night.

"People can get to physiologically excited by these activities -- gaming especially -- prior to bedtime, and will do it for hours on end," explained Russell Rosenberg, Ph.D, a US-based sleep specialist who is Chairman of the Board of the National Sleep Foundation and a blogger for HuffPost US.

Dr. Michael Breus, Ph.D., also a HuffPost contributor and diplomate of the American Board of Sleep Medicine suggests one possible solution is an electronic curfew, ceasing the use of all technologies an hour before bed. (Brues does distinguish between all other technology uses and TV watching, which he says for some people can actually help sleep, because it is the only way for them to unwind.)

More broadly, the first step may be for people to simply notice how much they do -- or don't -- rely on technology. Ramlakhan said that in the wake of the credit crunch, people she sees in the UK are more receptive to powering down, because they are noticing they are increasingly burned out, exhausted and in need of solutions.

Cutting down on technology use can be difficult.

Ramlakhan herself admitted that she was on holiday recently and fell into the bad habit of using her Blackberry.

"I suddenly needed to think, 'Why am I doing this?'" she said. "Technology can be a wonderful thing, but it can also cause burnout and serious sleep problems, too."

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