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Study shows link between texting and sleep problems

Teresa Tanoos's picture
Study finds the more college students text, the worse they sleep

College freshman typically struggle with sleep deprivation as they adjust to life on campus, but a new study suggests that “texting” may be another reason these students have sleep problems.

The study examined college freshman as it pertained to the link between interpersonal stress, text-messaging behavior, and three factors associated with college students' health: 1) burnout; 2) sleep problems, and 3) emotional well-being.

According to Washington and Lee University psychology professor Karla Murdock, who writes about the results of the study in the latest edition of Psychology of Popular Media Culture, the impact of texting on freshman students' psychological well-being depended on the level of interpersonal stress they were already experiencing – and the more they texted, the less they slept regardless of their previous stress level.

All of the freshman students in the study were asked questions that were designed to measure levels of academic and social burnout, emotional well-being and sleep problems. In addition, they were asked by Murdock to estimate how many text messages they sent and received on an average day.

The results of this study are particularly significant considering that prior research has consistently found that college students, especially freshman, sacrifice sleep throughout their years on campus.

Indeed, multiple recent studies show that 70 percent of college students receive less than the eight hours of sleep recommended – and, in a 2007 survey by the American College Health Association, 40 percent of students reported feeling rested only two days a week.

For the study, Murdock used the Pittsburgh Sleep Quality Index to measure multiple aspects of the students' quality of quality (e.g. sleep duration, the amount of time it takes to fall asleep, the amount of time actually spent sleeping while in bed, nighttime disturbances, daytime sleepiness, etc.).

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The most significant finding of the study was that a higher number of daily texts was directly associated with more sleep problems, which further supports prior research among adolescents and emerging adults that found a direct link between cell-phone use and poor sleep.

So what are the potential causes that prompt college students to allow texting to interfere with their sleep?

Murdock points to two tendencies: 1) students' feel pressured to respond immediately to texts, regardless of what time it is; and 2) students' sleep with their phone nearby, which allows them to be awakened by incoming texts.

In addition, the study found a link between frequent text messaging and greater psychological vulnerability to interpersonal stress.

"These correlational findings provide an initial indication that heavy text messaging could be problematic during times of stress. Although speculative, it could be argued that text messaging is a uniquely unsuitable mode of communication for coping with interpersonal stress in close relationships,” writes Murdock.

Murdock cites the abbreviated language frequently used in texts as an example, pointing out how this type of shorthand lacks the ability to show emotion and the kind of nuance that’s important when communicating sensitive issues. This, in turn, can lead to miscommunication; thus, more stress.

"Text messaging may carry a high risk of producing or maintaining misunderstandings and/or unproductive interactions during periods of stress," adds Murdock. "When interpersonal stress involves conflict, the conditions required for productive communication may be particularly difficult to achieve through texting."

SOURCE: Psychology of Popular Media Culture, Texting While Stressed: Implications for Students’ Burnout, Sleep, and Well-Being, Karla Klein Murdock. (September 9, 2013); DOI: 10.1037/ppm0000012