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U Still Up? Teens Are Text-Messaging Friends into the Wee Hours

April 13, 2007

SEATTLE – The teen under the sheets used to be reading a book with a flashlight. Now she’s text-messaging a boyfriend at 1 a.m.

Teens are famously sleep-deprived already, but experts say some are compounding the problem by staying up into the middle of the night to silently type messages to friends on their cellphones. The tiny phones _ with increasingly sophisticated capabilities _ are supplanting late-night computer messaging and making it even more difficult for parents to know when kids are really asleep.

“All this technology just enables teens to be connected 24/7,” said Anastasia Goodstein, the San Francisco-based author of “Totally Wired: What Teens and Tweens Are Really Doing Online,” published last month. “And it’s literally 24/7.”

Nearly a quarter of teens in a relationship have communicated with a boyfriend or girlfriend hourly between midnight and 5 a.m. via cellphone or texting, according to a recent online survey by Teenage Research Unlimited. One in six communicated 10 or more times an hour through the night.

“Is text-messaging contributing to sleep deprivation? Yes,” said Dr. Cora Collette Breuner, a professor of adolescent medicine at the University of Washington.

“Most kids go to sleep with their phone plugged in right by their heads,” said Breuner, a pediatrician at Children’s Hospital and Medical Center and mom to a teenage son. Every ping of an incoming message is a temptation to pick up the phone. “They know talking on the phone might wake up their parents, but if they text, it probably won’t.”

With changing biorhythms, teens do naturally stay up later _ but not that late, sleep experts say. “Some teens perpetuate it with things they do,” said Dr. Preetam Bandla, clinical director of pediatric sleep medicine at Swedish Medical Center’s sleep institute. Like surfing the Internet or watching TV, text-messaging tends to energize teens rather than help them fall asleep.

“Once you start a conversation with friends, you want to keep it going,” Bandla said. Parents who find a teen text-messaging at 3 a.m. can probably assume their kid has been up the whole time, he noted.

“It’s way more fun than sleeping,” Breuner said. “How exciting: Everybody else is asleep, and nobody knows you’re getting away with stuff.”

In one Edmonds, Wash., home, three teenage boys “armed with cellphones and good looks” used text-messaging to set up an early morning rendezvous, sneaking out of the house to meet girls. “I solved the issue by telling our sons that after midnight, the older boys’ curfew, the phone should be off and that I would be checking the phone bill to see if there was any late-night activity,” said one mom, who asked to remain anonymous. “If there was a violation, the phone would be taken away. So far, two years later, the rule has been respected.”

For teens busy with after-school activities, jobs and homework, after-hours might be the only time they can check in with friends. But pushing bedtime even a little can add up. “That’s precious time,” Breuner said. “Twenty minutes can be eaten up by a text message. That’s money in the bank just trickling out when they do that.”

From 10 p.m. to midnight, almost a third of teens in a relationship call or text 10 to 30 times an hour, Teenage Research Unlimited found.

“We encourage parents to be aware when, where and how teens use their cellphones,” said Jayne Wallace, spokeswoman for Virgin Mobile USA. “Texting can be surreptitious.”

More than nine of 10 teens with cellphones have text-messaging capability, Wallace said. Two-thirds use text-messaging daily.

More than half of Virgin’s customers ages 15 to 20 send or receive at least 11 text messages a day, she said. Nearly a fifth text 21 times a day or more. Some choose particular songs to play when they receive text messages from a given person so they know who sent it.

As more phones add instant-messaging service, phone IMing is also growing in popularity, Wallace said. Instant messages are typed like text messages on a phone but are sent to a buddy list and pop up immediately on the recipient’s phone screen, just like on the computer. “All the ways of communicating are kind of mooshing together,” Wallace said.

Some cellphone plans offer a set number of text messages (also called SMS, for “short message service”) for an additional fee, such as 1,000 messages for $9.99; others charge 5 to 10 cents per message (sent or received).

From October through December, Verizon Wireless hosted 17.7 billion text messages, more than double the messages from the same period in 2005, according to representative Georgia Taylor.

“Don’t you ever talk on the phone?” Bellevue, Wash., mom Cindy Pardee asked her 18-year-old daughter, Lauren. Lauren, a University of Washington freshman who uses her full 1,000 messages a month, will text message her roommates to turn down the TV while she’s studying in another room.

“Their phones are part of their bodies,” Pardee said. “They’ve gotten so good at text-messaging, they can do it with one hand with their eyes closed.”

Parents likely remember talking on the telephone with friends for hours, said “Totally Wired” author Goodstein. “With technology now, teens just have many more tools to keep the conversation going. And more are under the parental radar.”

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TOO MUCH TEXTING?

_Turn it off. Dr. Preetam Bandla, who works with teens at the Swedish Sleep Medicine Institute, suggests turning the phone off half an hour before bedtime. “You have to stop it all,” he said. “If they hear incoming messages, then it’s going to come back on.”

_Keep phones out of bedrooms. Some parents confiscate phones or require them to be set in a charger outside a teen’s room by a certain time each night. “I’m always a firm proponent of communication,” said Dr. Cora Collette Breuner, “but I think parents do need to be more firm that phones shouldn’t be near beds. They should plug into a recharger in the kitchen.”

_Go through the bill. Most companies record text messages separately from phone calls. Text-message records should include the sender/recipient phone number and time. With Verizon, for example, parents can call a company number from their teen’s phone to find out the number of text messages sent and received in the billing cycle.

_Block text-messaging. Verizon Wireless customers, for example, can turn off a phone’s text-messaging capability by calling the company, going into a store or accessing their account online. Customers can also block specific senders. There is no fee. “We add a feature code, and it is done,” explained spokeswoman Georgia Taylor. This service varies, however, so parents need to check with their provider.

_Enlist other parents. Polite society used to frown on phone calls after 9 p.m. Now calls or messages come directly to teens’ phones, so “those boundaries don’t apply unless parents set them,” noted Anastasia Goodstein, author of “Totally Wired.” Network with other parents of teens to agree on community standards.

_Stop rescuing. “If you are still getting your kids out of bed, it is time to give up that job,” said Dr. Jody McVittie, who leads a parenting class called High-School Sanity Circus. She suggests parents ask teens to work through what might happen if they sleep late, such as missing the bus. Parents should be clear that a parental ride or excuse note is not an option. “We parents need to stop protecting kids from the natural results of their actions,” she said.

_Model good sleep habits. Rather than rushing around until bedtime, try to make the last half hour quiet time. “Everything should slow down,” Breuner said.

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SLEEP-DEPRIVED

_Only one-fifth of adolescents sleep an optimal nine hours on school nights, according to a 2005 National Sleep Foundation poll. High-school seniors averaged just 6.9 hours a night.

_Signs that teens aren’t getting enough sleep include difficulty waking in the morning, irritability, falling asleep during quiet times of the day and sleeping very late on the weekends.

_More than a quarter of high-school students fell asleep at school at least once in the past two weeks, the poll found. It also linked sufficient sleep with better school performance.

_Tired teens are at a higher risk for car accidents.




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