Sleep researchers warn about young people’s sleep

Mari Hysing has been known to lie awake in bed out of pure excitement at new research findings. But on the whole, she sleeps well at night. 

By Andreas R. Graven

En gruppe mennesker som sitter. Foto
In today’s digital world people can spend a lot of time looking at screens. Here is sleep researcher Mari Hysing flanked by a group of seniors from Amalie Skram upper secondary school in Bergen. Hysing and her colleagues have shown that the more we use electronic devices in the hours before bedtime, the greater the risk of sleeping less. (Photo: Marit Hommedal)

The psychology specialist and sleep researcher offers black coffee and welcomes us to the premises of Uni Research Health in the centre of Bergen.

Since Mari Hysing completed her PhD in mental health and sleep in children with chronic illnesses in 2010, sleep research has absorbed more and more of her attention.  

“There is so much going on the field,” she says, enthusiastically recounting key findings from the research group – without a hint of a yawn, even on a dull Bergen morning.

Extensive material

Hysing belongs to RKBU West (Regional Centre for Child and Youth Mental Health and Child Welfare) at Uni Research Health. Here she also heads the The Bergen Child Study project, the next phase of which has been renamed ung@hordaland. The list of new findings from the extensive data material that Hysing and her colleagues have reviewed and analysed is getting longer all the time.

“We started by reporting the incidence of too little sleep among children and young people, then moved on to articles on delayed sleep phase syndrome. We saw that young people struggled to get up early in the week because they pushed back their daily rhythm at the weekend."

The young people went to bed 4.5 hours later at the weekend, then struggled to get up on Monday morning. On weekdays, many 16-19 year olds sleep two hours less than they feel they need to.

Great media attention

“We also studied sleep patterns in relation to mental health, including depression. We later discovered that pupils who are absent a lot sleep less, and that the use of electronic devices both after school and in the evening shortens sleep time.

This last study, Sleep and use of electronic devices in adolescence (…), published in BMJ Open, attracted great attention in the media, not least internationally.

Hysing and her colleagues have shown that the more we use electronic devices in the hours before bedtime, the greater the risk of sleeping less – and of bedtime being delayed until late at night.

“The results are also graded. The risk of shorter sleep increases in proportion to the time spent in front of a screen,” says Hysing.

Multitasking also has an effect, by increasing the likelihood of spending more than 60 minutes getting to sleep.

What about her own sleep?

Later, part of the research will focus on the long-term consequences of too little sleep, and the function over time.

A sleep researcher knows a lot about other people’s ups and downs on the way to dreamland. It is tempting to ask: What about her own sleep?

“Well, it’s not perfect every night even though I research into this. But on the whole, I sleep well,” says Hysing.

She quickly manoeuvres us back to the subject:

“It is very important to have good research into sleep problems and sleep time in adolescents. Both as a researcher and as a clinician I am concerned with the relationship between mental health and sleep. It is important to focus on both aspects in analysis and treatment,” says Hysing.

Conscious effort

Mari Hysing herself has advocated extending the analysis of sleep in the Bergen Child Study project.

Researcher Mari Hysing is concerned about the relationship between young people's sleep habits and their mental health. Photo: Marit Hommedal

“Right from the start, sleep has been part of the study, which includes longitudinal monitoring of all people in Bergen born in 1993–95. When the new criteria for psychiatric diagnoses were published in 2012, I wanted to focus on the way young people’s sleeping time and sleep patterns affect their mental health. In other words, the commitment to sleep research at RKBU is a deliberate priority. It is no accident that we have published many exciting findings recently,” Hysing smiles between two sips of coffee.

By expanding the questions about sleep and extending the project with the new name ung@hordaland, the researchers now have a much broader overview than many other studies.

Link to registers

The next step will be to further enhance the quality of the research by linking the results from the epidemiological studies to registers.

In fact, the researchers have already started work on this, and showed in a study in the autumn of 2014 that pupils in upper secondary school who are absent a lot sleep around one hour less each night and go to bed much later at the weekend than pupils with fewer absences.

“In the future, the register research will give us much better data; we have monitored the young people over time and noted their state of health, by linking to the patient register for example. The problem is that there are demanding processes to be followed in order to release the data for research purposes, and to make the research secure so that privacy and ethical concerns are respected. Register research also costs a lot.

Register research produces results

She believes that healthcare staff have the potential to monitor children and adolescents when it comes to mental health and sleep.

"The hope is that, through research, we can help to change treatment and follow-up for the better,” says Hysing. 

“One of the advantages of being a researcher at RKBU West is that those of us in the centre of competence are well-placed to communicate the results to clinicians. Of course it helps that sleep research is of great interest to many people, and that studies address problems that clinicians recognise from meetings with patients,” says Hysing.

International cooperation

She also highlights the effective cooperation in the research group working with ‘The Bergen Child Study’.

“We also notice how international cooperation is gaining in importance, and how this reinforces our networks and enhances skills.”

The exchange of knowledge is greater at some times than others.

“At a seminar at Solstrand in Os, we had invited a researcher from the University of Glasgow. The very next day, he helped with analyses of data for a study,” says Hysing.

Along with ‘The Bergen Child Study’ and ung@hordaland, Hysing has also carried out studies of the youngest children based on the ‘Norwegian mother and child study’ (MoBa). Here she showed that sleeping together can cause children to sleep less and wake up more often in the longer term.

However, it is sleep in older children and adolescents that will account for the bulk of her research in the future.

June 15, 2015, 1:23 p.m.