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Time and Sleep Deficits – Their Impact on Mental Health

By: Richard Boyd Copyright © 2021 February 19, 2020 no comments

Time and Sleep Deficits – Their Impact on Mental Health

Time Speeding Up

Many people report that as they get older, they feel that time is speeding up. Their sense is that the years are passing faster and faster and so they wonder why?

This is a common perception and the reason has been put down by psychologists as being due to at least in part, the increased nature and number of structured activities, habits and routines that adults adopt in life. This creates a comparative experience from childhood and teenage years where we had typically more “free” or unstructured time to fritter and waste on unstructured meanderings about the world.

In the last ten years there has been a sudden increase in the reported rise of actual time shortage overwhelm in the lives of teenagers and adults across the Western world. This goes beyond the vague feeling that time is speeding up, and indeed has created a new group of people who are anxious, overwhelmed and in crisis about how they struggle to do all those things they need to do, due to not having enough time.

One of the key issues is the fact that people no longer enjoy a boundary with their work or school at the end of the day. It used to be true that a person could isolate themselves and have private “me” time via having a physical boundary in seclusion from others.

Now we live in a 24×7 “wired” environment where the physical boundaries no longer create separation, thanks to the mass adoption of smart phone technology. You never actually leave work, school, or your friends anymore as they can contact you 24×7 and create a perceived demand to stay in touch or to respond.

This means we spend far too much time responding to or initiating digital communication instances, or consuming content that somehow, we find our attention menders back to even when we have no intention to do so.  Phones are setup as Pavlov’s dog. They ping or ring and we respond faithfully like a dog to get our digital reward, or to sate our anxiety that is somehow linked to our relationship to being digitally connected to others.

Time Distortion Effect

This all takes time and it consumes far more time than we acknowledge. In fact neuroscientists such as Dr Mary Aiken coined the term “Time Distortion Effect” to describe the effect that happens to digitally connected persons, where they lose connection to time, and where they perceive that they have been online for say an hour, they in fact may have passed multiple hours online, in a form of trance, oblivious to passing time or to others around us.

Surveys show that teenagers and adults are spending and therefore losing more time online than they realise or accept.  This is a vicious cycle as digital addictions form due to the repetitious nature of encountering or engaging in responding to or initiating digital signalling in a compulsive way.

Sleep Deprivation

One finding of the 2020 International Global Educational Rankings where Australia has fallen in the rankings as compared to other nation, is that teachers are attributing falling grades with the lack of sleep being experienced by students due to excessive time in evenings spent on social media. Time is lost that should be spent doing homework, as well as time that is being lost due to poor or lack of sleep.

The U.S. National Institute of Health, has long warned that the practice of watching a “light emitting device”, that covers all digital video streaming devices, at night before bed, is associated with insomnia and then daytime sleepiness.

Sleepiness in adults can create low energy and concentration deficits the next day. The effect on children is more pronounced as they are normally then placed in classrooms and asked to concentrate and learn new skills.

Sleep deprivation undermines the ability of a child to sit still and concentrate.  Children may respond to sleepiness by becoming hyperactive, restless, impulsive, emotionally explosive, and even aggressive. For this reason, a sleep deprived child is prone to be mis-diagnosed as having ADHD.

Effects on Stress Management

Indeed, there is a correlation in the rise of ADHD diagnosed children at the same time as the explosion in the mass adoption of digital devices in society. The link may be causal or accidental as research is needed in this area.

Another aspect of the loss of time is the amount of time spent satisfying your digital relationship cues. This works both ways. Some people find that some of their real or digital “friends” are incessant with their messaging and posting.

This creates a form of digital etiquette demand on the receiver of posts and messages to acknowledge and respond, lest offence is taken. The stress at feeling the need to bombard message and post, or the time taken to respond to volumes of posts and messages, can significantly eat into available time during the day or night, and interrupt one’s peace, tasks and stress management levels.

The originator of the post or message may likewise feel stress if receivers do not answer, and may think no one loves them, so they escalate and machine gun messages and posts to get attention and a response that reaffirms they are still OK and lovable.

Adults report feeling guilty and stressed if they do not “like” a post in a reasonable time, or respond to a message in a quick turnaround, and often find they have multiple instances of rapid fire friends filling their inbox every day, even far into the night when sanity would dictate we should all be asleep.

The digital demands of life are overwhelming many, whom may resort to sleeping with their phones beside them, and waking to the ping noise of an incoming post, just to tick it off as replied too!! Some of my clients have developed sleep disorders by being enslaved to the demands of their digital devices in this way. Switching off their device when they sleep is simply not an option to them.

Stress Management today involves a realisation of the relationship one has with digital technology and social media, and what that equates to in terms of consumed time. Time shortages create stress, and digital experience time can also create stress and anxiety for reasons I have outlined in this and other articles.

It is interesting that Stress Management tips now recommend clear boundaries between work life and personal life, but also time boundaries with online digital experiences.  The proven tip is to set a time boundary for digital usage at the end of the day. This means for example I simply hide or switch off my device after 9pm (for example), and do not check it till I am fully dressed the next morning.


Many digital over-users lie to themselves and others about how much time they spend online.  What often brings reality to the digital lie is a digital time diary. Here a concerned observer such as a parent or partner notes and writes down the amount of time that the digitally connected person consumes over a week.

When presented with this evidence the person is confronted with an uncomfortable time usage reality that cannot be so easily minimised or bargained away. Getting a person to come out of denial about any addiction is never easy and it will often require an outside intervention to force an admission the user is out of control.

Google has conducted Digital Wellbeing experiments in an attempt to recommend to Android phone users a set of strategies to mitigate the harm caused by excessive phone and search engine usage. Smartphones have created consumer habits that enable the continued adoption of digital devices and the content they stream.

The internal consumer habit or addiction is the checking of the device, or the unlocking of the device to check its status in terms of posts, messages and personalised content recommendations pushed to you to consider. According to various studies, it is estimated that consumers spend time unlocking or checking their smartphones on average 150 times per day.

Common language now includes the term “Nomophobia” to describe the conscious state of fear of not being able to access one’s smartphone. This condition has been documented globally and relates to the addictive nature of smartphones, plus their positive role in connecting people to information and others 24 x 7.

How You Can Break the Pattern

ISP’s such as Telstra, and the phones themselves, now have statistical data on phone usage that can be useful for users to breakdown how they are engaging with their phones.  The only way to tackle the problem of phone usage is to first quantify the size of the problem in terms of time used on it, and perhaps the gigs of data consumed in that time.

Once you have a baseline measurement you can measure your attempts to cut back on usage whilst also determining if you are applying your time constructively, as you may find you spend 40% of your time on Candy Crush. And only 7% on Google searches. The process of determining what usage is useful versus discretionary is made possible by examining the app-based usage statistics that are now available on both android and Apple phones usage dashboards.

Once you have determined that you could cutback a certain amount of time such as an hour per day, then motivate yourself by determining a positive activity in the real world that you could be doing with this reclaimed time (e.g. going to the gym or getting homework done). Specific goal attainment with freed up time is important else human habits will otherwise slowly but surely return you to the original time usage pattern unless the new task delivers a payoff or benefit.

Another recommendation is to prune the number of apps, groups and persons you follow, and switch off all but important or priority entity notifications. You have to reduce your Pavlov Dog response to the endless pinging on the phone, and cutback the excess content pushing that you receive, so a serious audit of who are your “friends” is key.

Switching off automatic notifications, and disabling recommendation engines that serve you up what it thinks you may want to see or connect with next, is part of breaking the phone addiction. It’s like getting the drug dealer off your doorstep so he stops ringing the bell and offering you another hit every time you open the door.

Additionally, simply switch your phone off at the same time each night. Night usage is the critical time that affects sleep and creates night time loss that is typically sleep time.  Place a physical clock in your lounge room and bedroom so you do not have the excuse of opening your phone to see what the time is. Once you open that phone then the digital dealer will ping you with the next unread message or great offer, so do not engage at all past cut-off time.

If you think of someone you need to contact, or something you need to do tomorrow, then write it down on a pen and paper for the same reasons above. Opening the phone is opening Pandora box!!

Effects on Family Unity

Outside the problem of the time black hole that smartphones and social media is creating in our lives, there is a larger picture emerging of a stress management failure in many parents to cope with work and family. This is a story of both energy and time availability.

The 2019 Australian National Working Families Report, painted a confronting picture of widespread collapse of family unity and involvement by parents in working families across Australia. A large part of the problem was the lack of time parents now feel they have to contribute to home life.

Parents report a time drought as one problem. Another problem is that whatever time they do find to be available, is taken up in getting rest and resourcing or self-soothing themselves to continue into the next day or next week.

This paints a scary picture of unavailable stressed parents who choose or who are forced to prioritise work over family. The respondents to the survey report they routinely now miss important social family and school engagement events.

The parents report their time is over-committed to somewhere else other than family and that they may resort to drugs, alcohol or escapism to cope, which again creates separation from family. The risk is that this separation leads to the breakdown of key relationships including marriages. Children are at risk of developing mental health issues including abandonment, trauma, low self-esteem, depression, anxiety and acting out risk taking behaviours instead of adopting self-protective behaviours.

For each one of us it’s time we looked at where our time goes on a daily basis and look to where we can adopt a healthy time relationship with ourselves and those around us.

If you feel that you are not dealing with your reality well its important to get some help, Please reach out to us for assistance on any mental heath related issues including but not limited to Anger management, Burnout, Depression, Anxiety, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or Stress management.


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