Study connects nighttime texting with depression, anxiety

A new study links depression and anxiety to sleeping with a cell phone at night. Photo by Erin Caughey/[email protected]

Students who leave their cell phones next to them while sleeping may be at a higher risk for depression and anxiety.

Sue K. Adams, an assistant professor of human development and family studies at the University of Rhode Island, conducted a study based on 200 students’ nightly activities. The study found that students who wake up in the middle of the night to respond to text messages incur a 45-minute “sleep debt,” which leads to depression and anxiety.

According to the study, students need an average of nine hours of sleep per night, but the average college student only gets seven hours. Those seven hours do not include the 45-minute sleep debt.

The study also found that the students woke up to respond to texts because of an attachment to their phones.

Daradirek Ekachai, chair and associate professor of public relations in the College of Communication, said students may be attached to their cell phones because of the various functions the devices can perform.

“Cell phones are not just used to communicate with other people,” she said. “It’s their calendar, clock, email and source of internet, in addition to all of these wonderful apps.”

Ekachai also pointed out that students who wake up for text messages may feel as if they are missing out on something and thus need to respond. She said this can be negative, though, in that student emphasis on cell phones blurs priorities.

“Cell phones become an extension of themselves, like eyeglasses or tennis shoes, so when they lose it they don’t know what to do with their daily lives,” she said.

Although the study showed many students wake up to respond to texts, it is hard to tell whether this is actually the source of increased feelings of anxiety and depression.

Ann Lawrence, a psychologist at Heartland Counseling in Milwaukee, believes the study does not establish causality, given the causes of depression.

“When somebody does a study, they state with authority a conjecture or hypothesis as to why the results occurred,” Lawrence said.

She said there is a correlation between lack of sleep and depression but is unsure if text messaging is the cause.

“That’s an unknown, but it makes sense because cell phones are representations of people,” Lawrence said.

Instead, she said there could be numerous reasons for students to experience anxiety or depression.

“It could be that waking up in the middle of the night causes anxiety and depression. It could be that caring about text messages causes anxiety and depression, or it could be a situation where a student is already up and think they might as well check their phone,” Lawrence said.

For Molly Edwards, a sophomore in the College of Communication, responding to text messages at night is a way to stay updated.

“Texting is the alternative to calling, so if someone texts me at night I get worried that it might be an emergency,” Edwards said. “So I wake up when I hear my phone go off.”

Edwards admitted she is oftentimes tired the next day but still wakes up to respond to a text message once or twice a night.

Edwards said another factor for responding to texts during the night is common courtesy.

“I think it’s rude not to respond to a friend,” she said.

Not all students respond to text messages during the night, though.

Jared Wimmer, a junior in the College of Business Administration, said he turns his phone off and gets an adequate amount of sleep.

“I turn my phone off at night to save battery and to not have to worry about it,” he said. “I like to say I cut myself off.”

Wimmer said that on a good night he gets eight or nine hours of sleep.