Too much cell phone use, too little sleep?

The time young people spend online has skyrocketed in recent years. (Chart based on Sara Thomée; Photo:

By Jenny Westberg, Portland Mental Health Examiner

Young adults who spend too much time on their cell phones or computers could be setting themselves up for sleep problems and mental health difficulties, according to a recent study — and in this case, if you don’t snooze, you lose.

Sara Thomée and colleagues at the University of Gothenburg found that young adults (ages 20-24) who spent large amounts of time talking on their cell phones, sending text messages and/or site-surfing online had increased rates of sleep disturbances, depression and stress.

Riskiest of all for a good night’s sleep: High cell phone activity combined with high computer use; late-night tech binges; and marathon computing sessions without breaks. However, researchers found consequences from heavy cell phone use even when you’re not staying up all night or working two keyboards.


Increased sleep problems included difficulty getting to sleep, waking up frequently, and less total sleep time.

But when does computer or phone use become too much of a good thing?

In Thomée’s study, “high computer use” was defined as more than 4 hours per day, and high cell phone use as 11+ calls and/or texts per day. In two other studies cited by the author, the “threshhold” for ill effects on physical and mental health was around 5 hours per day.

Cell phone-related or not, sleep problems can have profound effects on mental health.

Portland therapist Will Hall writes in Harm Reduction Guide to Coming Off Psychiatric Drugs: “Sleep deprivation is one of the single biggest causes of, and contributors to, emotional crisis.”


Lack of sleep can even cause psychosis. In 1964, Randy Gardner stayed awake for 11 days straight in an effort to get into the Guinness Book of World Records. There is a myth in psychological circles that Gardner suffered no ill effects. However, notes by the psychiatrist called in by his worried parents show steady deterioration:

  • Day 2: Difficulty focusing eyes and signs of astereognosis (difficulty recognizing objects only by touch).
  • Day 3: Moodiness, some signs of ataxia (inability to repeat simple tongue twisters).
  • Day 4: Irritability and uncooperative attitude, memory lapses and difficulty concentrating. Gardner’s first hallucination was that a street sign was a person, followed by a delusional episode in which he imagined that he was a famous black football player.
  • Day 5: More hallucinations (e.g., seeing a path extending from the room in front of him down through a quiet forest). These were sometimes described as “hypnagogic reveries” since Gardner recognized, at least after a short while, that the visions were illusionary in nature.
  • Day 6: Speech slowing and difficulty naming common objects.
  • Days 7 and 8: Irritability, speech slurring and increased memory lapses.
  • Day 9: Episodes of fragmented thinking; frequently beginning, but not finishing, his sentences.
  • Day 10: Paranoia focused on a radio show host who Gardner felt was trying to make him appear foolish because he ws having difficulty remembering some details about his vigil.
  • Day 11: Expressionless appearance, speech slurred and without intonation; had to be encouraged to talk to get him to respond at all. His attention span was very short and his mental abilities were diminished. In a serial sevens test, where the respondent starts with the number 100 and proceeds downward by subtracting seven each time, Gardner got back to 65 (only five subtractions) and then stopped. When asked why he had stopped he claimed that he couldn’t remember what he was supposed to be doing.

Late-night computing is a particular risk. (Image:

Sleep debt

It doesn’t take 11 days of sleep loss to cause problems, though. Each day you don’t get enough sleep, your “sleep debt” increases.  According to Stanley Coren, Ph.D., “when this sleep debt becomes large enough, noticeable problems appear.”

Tempting as it may be to spend hours online, perpetually “connected” and available, if you want to protect your mental health, protect your sleep — even if it means hanging up the cell phone.



ICT use and mental health in young adults: Effects of computer and mobile phone use on stress, sleep disturbances, and symptoms of depression,” Sara Thomée et al, March 2012

Harm Reduction Guide to Coming Off Psychiatric Drugs, Will Hall, M.A., Dipl.PW

Sleep Deprivation, Psychosis and Mental Efficiency,” Stanley Coren, Ph.D., Psychiatric Times