Dr. Suzanne B. Phillips

Licensed Psychologist, Psychoanalyst, Diplomate in Group Psychology, Certified Group Therapist, Author, Radio Host and Media Consultant Covering a Wide Range of Psychological Topics

Post: Teens Sleeping with Cell Phones: A Clear and Present Danger

You may already know that many teens sleep with their cell phone on or near the bed.  As an adult, you yourself may sleep with your cell phone and see no problem with this behavior.

A closer look at the reasons that 4 out of 5 teens sleep with their phone, however, gives cause for concern.  While for some teens, the night use of the phone is as a clock or alarm, for most the phone is on all night to connect with peers.

This “on call” status can reflect obligation, anxious need, and even addiction. It jeopardizes physical, emotional and cognitive functioning and limits domains of influence and connection.


  • The peer pressure “to be available” used to mean hanging out after school. It takes on different proportions when it means being available 24/7. Teens in focus groups report that they sleep with a phone under the pillow in case someone contacts them. They report wanting to be available for a friend in need but dislike being called for unnecessary issues, pranks, or by bored friends.
  • At an age when self-esteem hinges on peer acceptance, being caught in the demands of always being available is difficult. Many teens report stories of friends getting insulted, angry or upset if a text message or phone call is not responded to immediately.

“People will wake me up in the middle of the night and I have to wake up and talk or they will think I’m mad at them or something.”

Sleep Deprivation

Anyone who has dealt with the sleep deprivation of being a new parent or knows the sleep disruption and hypervigilance of being “on call” can appreciate the undue physical and emotional cost of a teen’s all night phone connection.

Medical research increasingly underscores the need for adolescents to get sleep – in fact 9 hours compared with adult’s 8 hours. Teen sleep deprivation has been associated with memory deficits, impaired performance and alertness. The loss of REM or intense sleep can result in increased irritability, anxiety and depression, as well as reduced concentration and creativity.

  • Do you know if your teen is sleeping?
  • Does he/she need help protecting their sleep?

The Texting Trap

Cell-phone texting has become the preferred channel of basic communication between teens and their friends. One in three teens sends more than 100 text messages a day or 3000 texts a month.

Teens who use their cell phones to text are 42% more likely to sleep with their phones than teens who own phones but don’t text.

Texting is instantly gratifying and highly anxiety producing.  Instant connection can create elation and self-value only to be replaced by the devastation of no response, a late response, the misinterpretation of a punctuation mark, a sexually harassing text, a text sent to the wrong person or a text that is later regretted.

Neuro-imaging has shown that back and forth texting floods the pleasure centers of the brain, the same area that lights up when using heroin.  The emotional disruption of a real or perceived negative response, however, necessitates more texting to repair the mood, to fix the feelings of rejection, blame and disconnection. The addictive potential is obvious.

Texting as an addiction jeopardizes sleep, cognitive functioning and real relating- making dependence on it greater and greater.

Protective Factors

  • Teens can’t call or text in the middle of soccer games, music lessons, snowboarding, karate classes or while engaged in marching band. Will this stop them from texting before or after the activity? Probably not, but…
  • Having activities that offer different physical, intellectual, creative, or spiritual dimensions protects a teen by ensuring alternate opportunities to enhance self-esteem, meet friends, master new skills and make connections.
  • When there are options there is less desperation, dependence and addiction to the 24/7 connection.  Much less definition of self is riding on an unreturned or nasty text message.

Deprivation of Domains of Influence

The adolescent tasks of separation from parents and identify formation are fostered by peer connections. Neither theoretically nor realistically, however, do they imply a complete replacement of parent influence by peer influence or a necessary conflict between them.

Teens need the ongoing benefit of both parent and peer connections to enhance self-esteem and to formulate identity.  According to research psychologist Wim Meeus (1995), both parents and peers have a strong influence in different situations – peers with leisure time, parents with school and career, mothers and peers with relationships.

It is the lack of balance – the inability to venture beyond parental connection or the absence of parental connection – that leaves a teen overly dependent and with limited resources for self-development.

Technology with its possibility of 24/7 connection by cell phone, deprives a teen of a separate parental and family domain. Whereas coming home could mean alternative connections, impressions, and experiences with family members, the 24/7 cell phone connection precludes this. It keeps a teen continually connected to peers but “out of “ the moment, place and relationships with parents and family.

“Out of Calling Range”

  • It is to a teen’s great advantage to be in a family where parents support peer connections BUT everyone shuts off cell phones and no one texts at dinner – even if family dinner means two family members sitting down to have a quick pizza.
  • It is to a teen’s advantage to be involved in experiences with a parent be it driving lessons, baking, laying cement, planning a trip or skiing where both agree to postpone answering or send a “ call you back later” while they are busy together.  The need for parents to model this is crucial.

Planning vs. Policing

If parents are able to plan with their teens to open the spaces and relieve the “on call” demands, the teen can have the benefit of both parents and peers.

  • Quite concretely, research shows that calling plans that offer limited hours or texting – result in less use by teens. If it is discussed that minutes and messages have to be limited,  many teens will self-limit rather than have parents checking.
  • Discussing and planning the use of the cell phone is a far better alternative to policing. In the case of one boy – telling his friends that his cell phone was shut off after 11 PM actually gave him an out.
  • One mother suggested that her teens tell friends that all cell phones will be unreachable during the night as they will be on a charger pad.  When her  daughter voiced worry about a friend who was having a difficult time and  might need someone to call – the Mom validated the concern but invited her daughter to give their house number as an emergency back-up.
  • The midnight kitchen conversation between parent and teen or the story revealed by either when driving together needs a space side by side with connection to technology.

The Benefit of Disconnection

As one teen described it,

“To stay connected with my friends means there is no disconnecting.”

Notwithstanding the importance of peer and parental connection, there is a need for disconnection from both-a need for downtime. Research has found that major cross sections of the brain become surprisingly active during downtime.  Private time without stimulation allows the brain to synthesize information, make connections between ideas and foster development of a personal self.

We have provided our teens with a high tech world of endless connectivity.

We must  make it safe as well as vital.

An answer to Insomnia on Psych Up Live – Listen In