Electronics are stealing sleep from tech-addicted teens

  • Article by: LAURA M. HOLSON , New York Times
  • Updated: July 15, 2014 - 12:04 PM
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Owen Lanahan, 15, texts his friends and watches Youtube videos on how to create hip-hop beats at night in his room at his home in Portland, Ore., July 1, 2014. With myriad electronic ways to socialize, gossip and explore hobbies, tech-addicted teenagers are getting even fewer hours of sleep -- a trend labeled vamping after the other legendary creatures of the night. (Leah Nash/The New York Times) -- PHOTO MOVED IN ADVANCE AND NOT FOR USE - ONLINE OR IN PRINT - BEFORE JULY 6, 2014.

Photo: LEAH NASH • New York Times,

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Owen Lanahan’s parents demand that his cellphone be stored in the kitchen by 10 p.m., but sometimes he sneaks it into his bedroom. That’s because he considers late-night hours his “me” time.

“Kids my age are very occupied,” said Owen, 15, a sophomore in Portland, Oregon. “We have school all day, and see our friends. We get home and we have to do our homework. Then we eat dinner and go to bed.”

So some nights, mostly weekends, he snuggles under the covers with his laptop, the screen dimmed so his parents won’t see, and watches tutorials on YouTube about how to create hip-hop beats with a drum machine.

“I talk to girls and stuff,” he said. Other times he’ll upload his music to SoundCloud and notify his Twitter followers. “Sometimes I look up and it’s 3 a.m. and I’m watching a video of a giraffe eating a steak,” he said. “And I wonder, ‘How did I get here?’ ”

Researchers have long contended that teenagers (along with their stressed-out parents) should get more sleep. But with myriad electronic ways to socialize, gossip and explore hobbies, tech-addicted teenagers are getting even fewer hours of sleep.

Some young people even have a term for it online: vamping, a reference to those other legendary creatures of the night. (Thanks, “Twilight” and “True Blood.”) They document their all-nighters by posting selfies on Instagram from bed, with the hashtags #teen and #vamping.

The word has even gotten the attention of academics.

“Social media is about having agency over your own life, and vamping is one way to recapture that,” said Alice Marwick, an assistant professor at Fordham University who studies the Internet and society.

Danah Boyd, a scholar and senior researcher at Microsoft Research, who recently wrote the book “It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens,” offered two reasons for the phenomenon. First, teenagers have a desire to connect, and the solitude of night allows for intimate conversation. Second, they are reacting to overbooked schedules packed with sports, music lessons and homework that give them less free time to pursue personal interests.

“Parents think they are doing good,” Boyd said of teenagers’ busy schedules. “But hanging out is where young people begin to understand social dynamics.”

She added, “Because of the restrictions placed on them, very few interactions are unstructured until their parents go to bed.”

But even with limits, it is tough to patrol teenagers 24 hours a day. Jake Rosen-Birch, 15, a high school sophomore who lives in Washington, D.C., said he takes naps after school so he is wide-awake by midnight, often texting friends on his smartphone about concerts or favorite bands.

“I’ve been on Snapchat all night and not closed my eyes,” he said, referring to the popular app where messages vanish after a few seconds. Other times he binge-watches shows on Netflix.

“All parents are struggling with this,” Owen’s mother said.

Or maybe teenage behavior hasn’t changed. “I used to have a flashlight and I’d read Dickens late at night,” said James Shapiro, the middle-school director at the Berkeley Carroll School in New York, who offers parents tips about setting boundaries. “I’d hear footsteps and turn the flashlight off.” He laughed, adding, “I was good at feigning being asleep.”

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