How Electronic Devices Affect Sleep
Everyone unwinds before they go to sleep. Put the pajamas on, brush your teeth, put everything away. And if you’re like most people, you’ll likely you get a little screen time before you decide to call it a night.
It might be reading a book on your kindle, checking your email on your iPad, or maybe getting in a few rounds of Candy Crush.
In the last few years, scientists are finding out that our screen time could be disrupting our sleep. And because sleep is so important to our brain health, stress management, and memory we may be hurting ourselves without really knowing it.
Let’s take a look at what the recent science is finding out about our bedtime rituals, how our electronic devices affect sleep, and what we can do to increase our quality sleep time.
Blue Screen of Death
More than just a few of us might be a little addicted to technology. So just how many of us do it?
The report released by the National Sleep Foundation in 2014 found that 89 percent of adults and 75 percent of children have at least one electronic device in their bedroom. They also reported in 2011 that said 95 percent of people used an electronic device within an hour of bedtime.
Scientists have become curious if the light emitted by our electronic devices could be harming the quality of our sleep.
One of the most recent studies was published in PNAS has found evidence that this could be the case.
They took 12 volunteers and put them under different conditions before going to sleep. The participants read for 4 hours before bedtime which was at 10pm for 2 weeks.
For the first week half of the group used an e-reader, and the other half read from paper books. This was done for a full week. Then the scientists switched the two groups for the second week. Those who had e-readers now read paper books, and the paper readers now read from electronic devices.
They noticed that melatonin – a chemical that helps regulate our sleep patterns – was reduced by 50 percent in those who read with electronic devices. These levels also suggested that circadian rhythms had been delayed about an hour and a half.
The readers of electronic devices also took about 10 minutes longer to go to sleep and also had about 10 minutes less deep sleep – or REM in the night. The participants also reported feeling not as alert the morning after.
While that is one of the more recent studies, it’s definitely not the first. Previous research has been looking at the effect of devices on sleep patterns and how their light affects our melatonin production for awhile.
One study published in Behavioral Sleep Medicine tracked the frequency and in bed media usage before sleeping in 532 students. The result of the study found that computer and mobile phone use was linked to insomnia symptoms. More interesting, though, was that other media devices – like television or tablets – didn’t share this link.
While these studies are a good first step, there’s still some unanswered questions. What are the exact mechanisms? How intense does the light have to be? How much does it really affect our melatonin levels?
Devil in the Details
The most recent study from PNAS was an extremely small study in pretty controlled circumstances. It also had people read for 4 hours, which doesn’t seem realistic. I doubt very many people read that long before going to bed.
It isn’t the only study that suffers from a small pool of subjects – which can affect the findings. So it should be taken with a grain of salt. Larger studies over a longer time frame that reflect real world conditions need to verify these findings. But this doesn’t mean that we should ignore the current data either.
Here’s another issue to consider. Electronic devices have an uncanny ability to hold our attention. Whether it is checking email or playing games, it keeps the brain engaged. It may be this characteristic in combination with excessive light exposure that could be the culprit.
Research from Michigan University ran two studies with managers and employees to monitor the effect of smartphone usage before bed. Across both studies it was found that late night use of smartphones for business purposes cut into sleep time. It also reduced their energy levels the next day.
Oddly enough they also saw that smartphone devices had larger negative effects than other digital devices such as TV and laptop computers.
Texting Affects Sleep and Grades
Electronic devices can also affect teenagers. Research that looked specifically at teens and their devices found that late night texting affects sleep and grades.
Scientists collected data from teens about texting behavior and academic performance. They found that those who texted more than 30 minutes after the lights had gone out not only had worse grades, but were sleepier the next day than teenagers who texted less than 30 minutes.
Another interesting finding from the study revealed that their was no drop in school performance for those that texted while the lights were on. The researchers believed that this finding could mean that the effect of screen light could be amplified when devices are used in the dark.
Sleep Tips for Devices
Where digital devices are concerned, there are a few guidelines you can use to help you snooze.
Recommendations from the Mayo Clinic suggest at least dimming the brightness on your devices and making sure you are keeping them at least 14 inches from your face. This will reduce the chance that light will disrupt your normal melatonin production.
Other evidence from clinical studies recommend disengaging from your digital devices an hour before sleep. This should help you disengage from daily stressors and potential anxiety. There’s nothing worse than worrying about the future when you should be relaxing and preparing for sleep.
Finally, another recent study found that getting plenty of natural light during the day may eliminate the effect of blue light from devices used at night. Researchers found that melatonin levels in saliva samples were the same for groups that read paper books or from tablets.
This should help increase quality of sleep while reducing the difficulty of falling asleep.
Sleep Well My Friends
Although some sleep researchers are concerned with how electronic devices affect sleep, more science needs to be done. But there are indicators that the screens themselves, or at least their effect on our sleep habits can be causing some problems.
Further studies done on light emissions from electronics should give us some answers. Studies are underway, and no doubt we’ll see plenty more data in the coming years. I’ll be sure to let you know what they find.
In the meantime, don’t forget how important sleep is to your brain health. So prioritize accordingly, so you can attack your day fully engaged, alert, and with focus.