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Cellphones and Sleep

Two Washington and Lee University students are hoping their summer research puts fellow classmates to sleep — literally.

The students — senior Maia Robbins and junior McCauley Massie — spent the summer helping to build a sleep study as part of psychology professor Karla Murdock’s ongoing analysis of the relationship between cellphone use and student health and well-being. This latest project will delve into the sleep patterns of W&L students.

“We’ve been collecting data continuously,” said Murdock. “And one of the interesting findings is that heavy cellphone use is related to sleep disruption.” The link between cellphone use and poor sleep, however, is not well understood.

Cell phone use by young adults is at an all-time high. According to a 2010 report from the Pew Internet & American Life Project, a whopping 96 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds own cellphones. A Pew report the following year found that cellphone users between the ages of 18 and 24 exchange an average of nearly 110 texts per day, which exceeds 3,200 texts per month.

The sleep study may provide insight about the connection between heavy cellphone use and sleep disruption. Previous research by Murdock and others suggests several potential culprits. “It could be that heavy cellphone use is related to disruptions in sleep because when people get in bed, they spend an hour and a half playing on their phone, before going to sleep,” said Murdock. “So they’re getting less sleep.”

The proximity of cell phones could also be an issue. “There’s data indicating that some overwhelming majority of college students and adolescents sleep with their cellphones within arm’s reach, and many of them are sleeping with it under the pillow,” said Murdock. “Notifications coming in the middle of the night may wake them up.”

Literature also indicates that the light emitted by screens on cellphones and electronic devices may disrupt the production of melatonin, a hormone that induces sleep.

Massie, a neuroscience major from Atlanta, and Robbins, a psychology and sociology double major from Seattle, have helped to develop the study, which will begin running this fall and will potentially include as many as 100 students. To monitor sleep cycles, the research team will use an objective, non-invasive method known as actigraphy.

Massie’s first project was a market analysis of actigraphic wristbands, which are worn around the clock. The bands record activity levels throughout the day and monitor sleep cycles at night. “I probably looked at 20-plus articles just to see which devices researchers were using on which populations,” said Massie. The team ultimately selected the Actiwatch 2, a gray, water-resistant band.

Robbins and Massie tested the bands on themselves. They discovered that wearing them too snugly was distracting during the course of the day and users should wear the bands slightly loose. They noted this problem and other issues in an Actiwatch 2 instruction manual they created for the study.

The two student researchers also drafted a sleep diary, which asks about the length and quality of the previous night’s sleep and about stress and sleep disruptions. Student participants will wear the Actiwatch and maintain their diary for a week. The Actiwatch data will then be downloaded directly into a computer for review.

“Even as a neuroscience student, I really didn’t truly understand until this summer how much goes into forming a study, because you can’t just make it up on your own,” said Massie. “You have to look at what has been previously done and find good ways to measure things.”

As the students formulated their questions for the sleep diary, they considered why they were asking a particular question and why the answer mattered. “It’s justifying what you’re doing at every step basically,” said Robbins, who also learned the importance of developing a study with broad appeal. “Once you get somebody’s attention about a topic, and once somebody else thinks it’s interesting, there’s a world of opportunity that opens up as far as things to learn.”

The dramatic increase in cellphone usage is a topic that’s catching people’s attention.
“There’s a feeling that all of this cellphone use might not be a good thing, but no one is sure how or why. What is clear is that  everyone is doing it,” said Murdock.

—Amy C. Balfour ’89, ’93L

Pew Internet & American Life Project

2010 Report: http://pewinternet.org/Reports/2010/Gadgets/Overview.aspx?view=all

2011 Report: http://pewinternet.org/Reports/2011/Cell-Phone-Texting-2011.aspx

News Contact:
Jeffery G. Hanna
Executive Director of Communications and Public Affairs
(540) 458-8459