Pill popping may be linked to smartphones
Phone addict ... Kris Nielson checks his smartphone through the night, but reckons he still sleeps well. Photo: BRUCE MERCER/Fairfax NZ
Your tablet computer, smartphone or other mobile device could be the reason you are not sleeping - and the ubiquitous devices are being cited as a possible cause for a 50 per cent jump in the number of young people scoffing sleeping pills.
Sleep expert Dr Alex Bartle said there is "huge concern" among experts that people are reaching for prescriptions instead of looking at why they cannot sleep.
"I'm particularly concerned about this increase through the teens to mid-twenties," he said.
While it is natural for teenagers to have trouble getting to sleep, Dr Bartle says in recent years the problem has been exacerbated by electronic media.
"People go to bed with their iPhones and iPads and expect to be able to then go straight to sleep, but realistically you can't do that.
"You really need to put these devices down about an hour before you go to bed."
Sean Lyons, chief technology officer at cyber safety promoter NetSafe, said previous research had shown any activity that stimulated the brain an hour before bedtime impacted the ability to sleep.
"I am with this guy," Mr Lyons said. "There will always be people who Facebook or text themselves to sleep. I really do think that these are human issues, they are not technology issues.
"I would be looking for people to modify their behaviour rather than reaching for pharmaceutical solutions."
A study by the America's Lighting Research Centre backs Dr Bartle, saying devices with back-lit displays (such as tablets and smartphones) caused melatonin suppression, affecting our body clock and delaying sleep.
The researchers said teens - who were already "night owls" - were particularly susceptible to the problem.
And pharmacists are reaping the benefits, at least in New Zealand. Figures obtained by Fairfax Media show the New Zealand government drug agency Pharmac has spent $NZ3.2 million on sleeping pills this year and while Kiwi experts remain divided on how detrimental they are, all say drugs should be a last resort for treating sleeping problems.
According to Pharmac, there has been a 50 per cent increase in prescriptions for the drug Zopiclone being handed out to people aged between 10 and 29 in Waikato.
Zopiclone is the most commonly dispensed sleeping pill in New Zealand, with more than 500,000 prescriptions dished out this year - 57,000 of those in Waikato.
In total just over 300,000 scripts for sleeping pills have been dispensed in Waikato since 2008 - the fourth highest region nationally behind Canterbury, Waitemata and Auckland.
The numbers would have been higher, but in September 2010 Pharmac approved a move to allow doctors to write scripts lasting three months, instead of just one month - meaning less scripts are now written.
University of Auckland insomnia specialist Dr Tony Fernando said about 80 per cent of GPs he'd had turn up to seminars on insomnia were adverse to prescribing sleeping pills because they believed them to be highly addictive.
But studies had shown only about 10 per cent of people who used sleeping pills became dependent on them. "For a long time sleeping medications have been vilified as these evil medications when they're not. But at the same time I'm not saying they should be used every time."
Dr Fernando said 50 per cent of people with insomnia suffered depression and anxiety so prescribing sleeping pills was not going to fix the problem.
Another 30 per cent had "busy minds", which meant behaviour therapy, like teaching them how to switch off via meditation, should be the first port-of-call for treatment.
Pharmac's Dr Peter Moodie said New Zealand's prescription numbers were not high enough to be cause for concern.
'My phone is my life'
Hamilton resident Kris Nielson checks his smartphone through the night, but reckons he still sleeps well.
But he does take his phone to the bathroom with him when he has a shower.
"My phone is my life in a way," the 33-year-old says.
"When I go to bed it's right beside me and it has to be charging so it doesn't go flat. If I leave it accidentally and I get half way down the road, I have to turn back to get it - even if I'm just going to get milk.
"It's a bit annoying really because I remember when you used to have the old phones . . . you didn't care [about them]. But now the phones are more advanced. If I wake up at 2am [on pay day] I'll check my bank account on my phone ... then I'll quickly check Facebook and Gmail. I'm definitely a phone addict."
For Huntly's Chelsea Rowney her smartphone use is starting to impact on her life.
The 20-year-old often wakes up at night to check her iPhone 5 and what is happening on her social media sites.
"It'll be 3am and I'll check if I've got emails - just anything really. Facebook and Twitter. I'll even update my status."
Once she woke up at 3am and found chocolate next to her bed so updated her Facebook status to say: "I'm eating chocolate".
"That was 3am. People think I'm nuts."
And the addiction has affected her sleep.
"I'll have trouble going to sleep and won't go to bed late because I'm on my phone. Then I'm going on it at night. So by the time I have to go to work, I'm just so knackered.
"I'll want to have a nana nap during the day but I can't."
As a former dental assistant she used to start work at 7.30am so it "was just ridiculous". Now she works at a supermarket.
Fairfax NZ News