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Widespread internet access is causing mass sleep deprivation, study suggests

We’re familiar with a lot of the arguments about why high-speed internet is among the greatest inventions in human history. But the internet can be bad for you, too — and, no, we’re not just talking about the howling post-apocalyptic wasteland that is the YouTube comments section.

In a new study, funded by the European Research Council, researchers establish what they claim is a causal link between broadband internet access and sleep deprivation. Specifically, they claim that our use of various internet-connected devices is costing those of us with high-speed internet up to 25 minutes of sleep per night, compared to those without it. That’s not good news.

“Internet addiction and technology use near bedtime are often blamed as a major cause of the sleep deprivation epidemic,” Luca Stella, a researcher at the Carlo F. Dondena Center for Research on Social Dynamics and Public Policy at Italy’s Bocconi University, told Digital Trends. “Yet the empirical evidence on this relationship is still limited. In our study, we first show descriptive evidence that the use of digital devices at night is correlated with shorter sleep duration. Then, exploiting differences in the access to high-speed internet caused by the pre-existing telephone infrastructure in Germany, we analyze the relationship between high-speed internet and sleep. We find that access to broadband internet reduces sleep duration and sleep satisfaction.”

These researchers aren’t the first people to raise the alarm about our dependence on internet-connected devices, or the possible links between areas like smartphone addiction and various negative health impacts. However, arguments surround many of these studies has gotten bogged down in the correlation versus causation debate. While this study is certainly not going to be the final word on the matter, the unique post-Berlin Wall digital divide in Germany — which has split broadband adoption along geographical lines — certainly makes for a compelling case study.

“Overall, the results were consistent with our prior [assumption] that high-speed internet may increase the use of digital devices, and more technology use near bedtime may delay bedtime and result in shorter and worse sleep,” Stella said. “A more surprising result is that the correlation between smartphone use and short sleep duration was highest among the 30- to 59-year-olds, rather than the under 30. The larger effect among over-30s may be explained by the fact that these individuals are more likely to face work and family constraints in the morning, and may not be able to compensate for a later bedtime.”

A paper describing the work was recently published in the Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization.

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Luke Dormehl
I'm a UK-based tech writer covering Cool Tech at Digital Trends. I've also written for Fast Company, Wired, the Guardian…
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