How important is it to get enough sleep?

We’re constantly told how crucial it is to get our nine hours every night. Find out why - and what you can do to keep up the routine.

Mental health and wellbeing
By VoiceBox ·

Joseph (not his real name)

Young author

Is tech influencing the way we sleep?

I know how important it is to have a healthy sleep pattern. I’ve sat through five PSHE sessions about it. These always follow the same format: a teacher stands at the front and talks through a Powerpoint. Usually they rattle off a few vague facts about how your brain retains information when you sleep and how teenagers need more sleep because our brains are growing. At this point there’s probably some link in the Powerpoint to a YouTube video that the teacher spends five minutes trying to work, while the class talk among themselves about Love Island. Eventually they give up and try salvaging things with a group discussion. Suggestions are made, like getting an early night or setting some kind of regular routine for sleeping and waking, but the debate always fizzles out until it’s a conversation between the teacher and one really keen girl in the front row. Eventually, to everyone’s relief, the bell goes, and it’s all over.

Learning about sleep like this is a bit like learning ‘study skills’. It’s all obvious stuff. We know that sleep is valuable because being tired feels so bad. The fact that someone has written it all down can feel like a waste of time. Even so, you do sit there thinking “Yeah, I probably should stop watching YouTube videos of people falling out of canoes until three in the morning. Maybe I’ll even remove screens from the bedroom, or make a big neat sleep timetable and stick it up on my wall.” Then the lesson ends and you never think about any of it again. I can’t think of a single one of my friends who actually follows that ideal routine dreamt up in PSHE HQ. I don’t think that’s anything new, or specific to my generation. Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure technology is changing the way we relate to sleep, the same as it’s changing the way we relate to food and sex and everything else, but I don’t think that before the LCD screen was invented every teenager wanted to go to bed when they were told. That’s probably something more to do with being a teenager, maybe with wanting to feel like an adult. I think a generation of kids that went to bed at bedtime would make a dull generation of adults.

Most nights I get to sleep around 12. I think that’s pretty good, really. If I’m in bed by 10:30 then that’s only an hour and a half of mindless internet consumption before I settle down. OK, it’s probably not great (especially when it’s tagged on to the much bigger number of daily hours of logged on). But it’s OK compared to the 4am guilt when you realise you’ve ruined tomorrow because you wanted to watch a video titled “Microwave microwaving a microwave microwaving a toaster” or “Giant African Bullfrogs eat everything in sight (including mice)”. These nights come around now and then, and the mornings are bad, but never as bad as you think they’re going to be, and never bad enough to stop it happening again. It does make me wonder about what kind of dark patterns developers weave into the design of these websites that make it so easy to slip down a virtual rabbit hole. Lots of apps, especially mobile games, purposely obscure the time on your phone while you play. Someone on Reddit compared it to casinos having no clocks or windows. I think that’s quite scary: malevolent little pocket casinos keeping us awake.

There is a flip side of tech, though, when it comes to sleep: apps like Sleep Cycle are designed to monitor you throughout the night and others like Headspace teach mindfulness and meditation to calm you down and nurture your mental health. There’s even a whole section of YouTube dedicated to “Relaxing sleep whale noises”. Some people swear by Headspace, but I’m weary of the sleep-positive tech revolution. I think no matter how attached we are to our phones, these kinds of changes still have to come from us. If you want to sleep more, you just have to sleep more. No one can really help you do that.

Of course there are other reasons to lose sleep. Sometimes work gets in the way, deadlines sneak up on you. I’ve never had much of a problem with this. There’s been the odd essay that’s kept me up late, but generally speaking I seem to lose any work-based motivation after 2am. I do have friends who do that thing that everyone tells you not to do, revising through the night. I don’t know if it works for them. To be fair, they are all pretty successful academically. A bit manic, but basically fine. Then, obviously, there’s going out. There’s probably nothing new to say here: drugs and alcohol and dancing are all quite draining, but probably a healthy way for young people to let off steam every now and then. Especially when teenagers are under so much pressure at school that some of them stay up all night revising. I don’t think you can say one thing is less healthy than the other.

At the end of the day, I think this all comes down to a question of what is natural. Apparently there’s a wealth of data suggesting teenagers need to sleep more than they do. There are plenty of things that are contextually specific to my generation, things like growing up with the internet, and having information and entertainment on tap 24/7, but there are also things that are just specific to being a teenager. Personally, I think developing a healthy sleep pattern is more about growing up than anything else.

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