Study links being online with no sleep, exercise to higher risk of school absence

Spending too much time online to the point of giving up necessary activities, such as eating, sleeping and exercising, is linked to heightening the risk of school absence among teens, new research conducted in Finland has found.

Girls are more vulnerable to using excessive internet than boys, possibly because they tend to use social media more than boys, researchers said.

However, more boys were found to report truancy or absence from school than girls, while girls were found to report more of absences due to medical reasons.

The team of researchers, including those from the University of Helsinki, found that getting the recommended 8-10 hours of sleep and exercise, and a trusting relationship with parents with whom they could share concerns seemed to be protective. Their findings are published in the journal Archives of Disease in Childhood.

For the study, the researchers analysed the data of more than 86,000 adolescents aged 14-16, taken from the School Health Promotion study, a national biennial survey. The teens were asked about their relationship with parents, including how often they shared concerns with them, along with their sleep and physical activity.

The internet use of the teenagers was measured using a validated scale — Excessive Internet Use (EIU) — which is based on aspects, such as neglect of family, friends, and study, and not eating or sleeping because of being online.

The researchers found that girls were 96 per cent likelier to use the internet excessively than boys, who were 79 per cent likelier to do so. They also found that about a third slept for fewer than eight hours over the weekdays, and roughly the same fraction of the participants reported low levels of physical activity — less than three days a week.

The research team found that spending too much time online was associated with a 38 per cent higher risk of truancy and 24 per cent higher risk of school absence due to medical reasons.

They also found that being able to share concerns with parents was strongly associated with the lowest risk of both truancy and school absence due to medical reasons, with close to 60 per cent being less likely to play truant and roughly 40 per cent less likely to be absent from school because of an illness.

Good relations with parents, longer night sleep over weekdays and physical activity were all found to be significantly protective, the team said.

Being an observational study, however, a cause-and-effect relationship could not be established, they said.

“Our results are relevant for professionals organising and working in school health and wellbeing services, especially when professionals meet students whose school absences raise concern,” the authors wrote.