Sleep deprivation is an increasing problem in many developed countries, which can result in impaired cognition and a number of serious individual and societal consequences. Lack of sleep has been linked to billions of dollars in lost revenue, up to one sixth of all traffic accidents in the US, and increased risk of chronic disease. The reason for this chronic sleep shortage is due to a combination of factors. Longer work hours, stress, and interpersonal relationships have all been blamed for the widespread insomnia. Now a new study claims that high speed internet access is at least partly at fault.
The study, published Friday in the Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization and funded by the European Research Council, suggests that high speed internet access is causing people to lose up to 25 minutes of sleep per night compared to those without high speed internet. It’s the first study to causally link broadband access to sleep deprivation.
The so-called “digitalization of the bedroom,” defined by our inability to part with our phones/laptops/televisions before bed, has already been linked to various sleep disorders. The light from our smartphones and computers suppresses the production of melatonin, which regulates our sleep cycles; late night text messages disturb our sleep; and internet addiction has been cited as a major cause of sleep deprivation. But does the quality of that internet connection also play a role?
To find out, a research team led by Franceso Billari, a professor of demography at Milan’s Bocconi University, turned to Germany, which has extensive survey data on the sleeping patterns and technology use of its citizens. Moreover, the country is also experiencing a massive economic loss due to sleep deprivation—about $60 billion per year—and has a well documented telecom divide resulting from the Cold War partition of the country.
After the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, many regions in East Germany adopted optical access line (OPAL) technology, which ended up being incompatible with the more widely adopted Digital Subscriber Line (DSL) technology. The distinction between OPAL and DSL lines are technical, but the important point is that they are incompatible. So as DSL became the favored standard for high speed internet, this posed significant barriers to broadband adoption in Eastern Germany.
By drawing upon confidential location data from the German socioeconomic survey, which has surveyed a representative sample of German households since 1984 on a wide range of issues including sleep and PC use, the researchers were able to determine how sleep deprivation is linked to high speed internet access by comparing this to broadband penetration in the country.
As the researchers found, high speed internet access “promotes excessive electronic media use,” which has already been shown to have detrimental effects on sleep duration and quality. The effects of high speed internet access were particularly noticeable in younger age demographics.
“High-speed Internet makes it very enticing to stay up later to play video games, surf the web and spend time online on social medias,” the researchers concluded. “Given the growing awareness of the importance of sleep quantity and quality for our health and productivity, providing more information on the risks associated with technology use in the evening may promote healthier sleep and have non-negligible effects on individual welfare and well-being.”