We live in a wired world at the height of a digital age. But even if our technologies have advanced at lightning speed in recent decades, our bodies remain unchanged and in many ways, ill-adapted to a fully plugged-in lifestyle. This mismatch between man and machine is never more clear than in the pursuit of quality sleep.
Editor’s note: This article originally appeared at SleepyBliss, and is re-published with permission.
An understanding of how electronics affect sleep is the first step toward healthier living in the digital era and that’s what we attempt to cover in this article…
How Prevalent Is the Problem of Late-Night Electronics Use?
Not only is the use of electronics before bed common, it’s practically a national pastime! It turns out that most Americans report using an electronic device more than once a week within an hour before bedtime.
Part of the explanation may have something to do with the convenience of the bedroom. In fact, according to a study by the National Sleep Foundation, at least one device can be found in the bedrooms of almost 90 percent of American adults and 75 percent of children’s. Moreover, many bedrooms contain multiple devices such as smartphones, laptops, televisions, tablets, and more.
But one segment of the population stands out in particular: young adults under the age of 30, a demographic where as many as 72 percent use mobile phones as part of their nightly bedtime routine. The percentage is even higher for teens between the ages of 15-17, a trend that holds true regardless of the day of the week it is (whether it’s a school night or weekend).
Thus, it should come as no surprise to learn that 60 percent of college-aged adults feel that they rarely or never get a good night’s sleep. As you might imagine, this trend has negative consequences from reduced levels of concentration and information retention to engaging in risky behaviors like driving while drowsy.
So, what exactly are Americans doing on these devices that consumes so much attention?…
Texting and More Texting
Most of the time spent on these electronic devices before bedtime is attributable to late night texting. While the numbers vary by age group, Americans on average send and receive an astounding 21 text messages in the hour before sleeping, with younger generations Y and Z doubling and almost tripling that average, respectively.
When combined with other interactive devices such as video games and laptops, it’s clear to see why people suddenly have more difficulty falling asleep than in previous years. And that’s not to mention staying asleep wherein 50% of Americans check their phones in the middle of the night!
Since use is more intensive and effects more important on younger people, the National Sleep Foundation recommends two basic strategies to deal with this problem: enforcing sleep rules and leading with the example.
7 Ways Electronics Affect Your Sleep
Whether analyzing a scientific study or examining anecdotal evidence, there’s no shortage of information confirming the direct effects of electronics on sleep, even in ways which might not immediately spring to mind:
1. Delays your circadian rhythm
Light exposure has a well-established role in promoting wakefulness. Thanks to sensitive photoreceptors in the eyes, the brain is able to keep track of the changes from day to night in the external world, ensuring we’re alert and asleep at the appropriate times.
While this system evolved to set the body’s circadian rhythms according to the rising and setting of the sun, it’s also receptive to the light input from electronic devices. As a result, our bodies are forced to establish new day and night set points that impact all our organ systems and overall health.
2. Reduces Your Melatonin Levels
Melatonin — the body’s natural nighttime “off switch” hormone — is an important component to establishing the body’s circadian rhythm. As evening approaches, melatonin levels increase and lead to a state of drowsiness that promotes sleep. Towards morning, melatonin levels taper off and a state of wakefulness is once again restored.
Now, the timing of the cyclical changes in melatonin levels is controlled in large part by the levels of light in the environment. Among the most common sources of light exposure in the evening when the natural environment is dark are the screens on electronic devices.
Instead of allowing decreased light from the natural environment to stimulate the release of melatonin every night, the blue light emitted from the screens on laptops, televisions, smartphones and other devices actually inhibit melatonin production.
Apart from blue light exposure, anecdotal evidence also seems to suggest that electromagnetic radiation (EMR) emitted from electronic devices may also suppress the production of melatonin.
In short, the lower the amount of melatonin, the more difficult it becomes to fall and stay asleep.
3. Keeps Your Brain (and Body) More Alert
Cognitive stimulation is one of the key ways nighttime electronic use affects your sleep, especially since many of the activities tend to be stress and anxiety-inducing.
The combination of light from a screen together with the changing visual and sound input from a television show or late-night video game is enough to stimulate the mind and reduce the natural nightly sleep-producing hormone melatonin.
Even something as simple as a late-night email can keep your brain alert and muscles tense during a time when they should be relaxing. And lest you think nighttime learning gets a green light, educational activities can also stimulate the body with the release of stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol.
There’s also the temptation to stay up later just to continue binge-watching a favorite series or checking up on social media. Sound familiar? The process goes something like this…
You start to use a device like a smartphone or tablet and you become more alert. In this attentive state, you feel compelled to continue using the gadget, thus further delaying your bedtime. Before you know it, you significantly cut into your precious sleep time!
As you’d expect, the short night combined with excessive exposure to the device causes you to awaken the next morning feeling groggy and less alert throughout the day.
4. Takes You Longer to Fall Asleep
When comparing a group of participants reading from an electronic device before sleeping with participants who read a paper-formatted book, it’s been shown that using electronic devices before bedtime is associated with a slower onset of sleep. Moreover, several studies focused on exposure to video games prior to sleep also found a delayed sleep onset latency.
5. Reduces the amount of time spent in rem sleep
Even when you finally get to sleep, the quality is average at best since exposure to electronic devices before bedtime delays and decreases the total amount of time spent in REM sleep — the restorative, dreaming part of the sleep cycle crucial to learning and memory retention. As a result, you feel less rested and alert the following morning and become more susceptible to health-related issues over time (more on that in a moment).
6. Periodically disrupts your sleep
Smartphone notifications are part of what makes these devices so handy. But they’re not so convenient when they go off in the middle of the night! As many as 10 percent of Americans leave the ringer on their phones turned on during sleeping hours. And even when the phone ringer is set to silent, just keeping the device in the bedroom increases the temptation to use it if/when you wake up in the course of the night.
Moreover, all electronics emit some amount of light, whether it’s something as small as a digital alarm clock or as big as a flat screen television. Even when switched off, the LED lights from power adapters on many electronics can be sufficiently bright to cause sleep disturbance. Generally speaking, the darker the room, the better the sleep.
7. Makes You Feel Less Rested in the Morning
One of the main reasons for feeling less refreshed by sleep in the morning is due to exposure to blue light the previous evening. As opposed to other wavelengths of light, it’s been shown that people exposed to electronic screens before bedtime are more likely to arouse from sleep throughout the night than those who forgo the devices.
Interestingly, the correlation between electronic use and feeling unrested is independent of the number of hours of sleep attained. Case in point, people exposed to electronics before bedtime have been shown to feel less rested than those who sleep the same number of hours without using electronics before sleeping.
The Long-Term Repercussions of Poor Sleep Quality
Feeling constantly sluggish and tired due to excessive electronic use at night is bad enough but it gets worse as chronic sleep deprivation and poor quality of sleep has been linked to all sorts of health-related problems down the road, such as:
- A weakened immune system
- Mood disorders like depression and/or anxiety
- Type 2 diabetes
- Heart disease
- Breast, colorectal, and prostate cancer
- Restless leg syndrome (RLS)
- Excessive weight gain
Are You Concerned About Electronics Affecting Your Sleep?
Now that you better understand the adverse relationship between electronic devices and sleep, perhaps you’re now wondering to what extent these gadgets affect YOUR sleeping behavior.
The answer to that question can be as simple as using a different kind of electronic device in your bedroom known as a sleep tracker — a wearable, bedside or mattress-based device that tracks and analyzes your sleep parameters without disrupting your sleep in the process.
With this device, you can find out whether reduced exposure to electronics before bedtime actually leads to fewer disturbances such as nighttime awakenings. Moreover, it can also track metrics such as the time it takes you to fall asleep, the duration of your sleep, and the amount of time spent in both deep and REM sleep.
Assuming overuse of electronics at night are at least somewhat of an issue for you, let’s discuss some key ways to help you overcome the problem…
How To Disconnect from Your Electronic Habit
As the saying goes, old habits die hard. But that’s no reason to give up on the idea and forming new habits instead. In fact, all it may take to unplug and get a better night’s sleep are a few surprisingly simple adjustments to your daily routine:
Get More Natural Light During the Day
If protection from the sun requires sunscreen, then protection from electronic devices needs a type of “screen screen.” 🙂 Interestingly, exposure to natural lighting offers this type of protection precisely.
First, it helps reset your body’s internal clock and maintain healthy circadian rhythms. Second, with enough daily light exposure, your body becomes less sensitive to the effects of artificial light, including blue light emitted from electronic devices.
In fact, according to one study, melatonin levels in people exposed versus not exposed to electronic devices at night were found to be the same when exposed to ample sunlight during the day. In other words, sunlight significantly offset the negative effects of electronics usage.
Moreover, people with enough sun exposure tend to feel refreshed and need the same amount of time to fall asleep, irrespective of exposure to electronic devices.
To improve your resistance to the effects of blue light exposure at night and maintain a healthy circadian rhythm, aim for at least 15 to 30 minutes of natural light exposure daily.
Start Unwinding 30 Minutes to an Hour Before Bed
The body craves routines including those that signal the transition between day and night. To make the shift easier, allow your body and mind to wind down with a “digital detox” before climbing into bed.
Whether that means listening to soothing music, practicing light yoga, reading a light-hearted book or any other calming activity, find a way to help you relax before bedtime. Just make sure to practice the activity consistently every night before sleeping.
By establishing and repeating a nightly relaxation routine, your body and mind will begin to associate these calming activities specifically with sleep, which will enhance the sleep-inducing effect of your wind-down routine.
Dim Your Bedroom Lights an Hour Before Bed
Devices and gadgets aren’t the only sources of artificial light exposure that can interfere with a good night’s sleep. Studies have shown that even exposure to indoor lights during the hours between dusk and bedtime can disrupt sleep by suppressing the production of melatonin.
According to one study, the melatonin exposure duration of participants exposed to normal room lights before bed was 90 minutes shorter than participants exposed only to dim lighting.
This time frame corresponds to the length of an entire sleep cycle, so you can only imagine the negative effect this can have on your sleep! Moreover, exposure to indoor lights while sleeping was shown to reduce overall melatonin production by as much as 50 percent, a pretty astounding figure.
Apart from affecting the amount of melatonin released, exposure to bright indoor lighting can also affect the timing of melatonin release, thus shifting your circadian rhythm in the process.
So, as a workaround, we recommend dimming your bedroom lights an hour before going to sleep. Alternatively, you can use orange or red-toned bulbs to provide a similar calming effect.
Maintain a Technology-Free Bedroom
Proper sleep hygiene includes keeping the bedroom free from electronic devices. For a better night’s sleep, sort out your bedroom using the following steps:
Take Out the TV
The first step to ridding your sleep space of disruptive devices is to remove any televisions and video game consoles kept in the bedroom.
While watching television and playing video games in another area of the home may take some getting used to, you’ll appreciate the benefits of enhanced sleep quality in the long term.
Find a New Charging Station
Pick another area in your home for charging portable electronics. You may even want to consider placing child safety plugs over outlets to avoid the temptation of recharging a device in the bedroom at night.
Create a New Wake-Up Call
Start using a non-light emitting alarm clock or otherwise part of an electronic device. Some good options include classic wind-up clocks and wake-up systems designed with sleep hygiene in mind.
Read the Old-Fashioned Way at Night
Stick to paper books if reading is part of your nightly routine as tablets and even some e-readers emit blue light via backlit displays.
Keep the Bedroom a Limited Use Space
Once your bedroom is technology-free, it should meet the basic sleep hygiene principle of reserving the bedroom for the sole purposes of sleep and intimacy.
Now, if, for whatever reason, you’re unable to create a technology-free bedroom, consider taking at least some of the following steps to reduce your device exposure:
Lower the Brightness of Your Devices – Less light exposure from devices translates into less suppression of melatonin, thus aiding sleep. Try also switching your smartphone to “night mode” in the evening hours and use the f.lux or Twilight app to help reduce the amount of blue light emitted during set hours (MacOS and Android respectively).
Invert the Colors on Your Screens – Most smart devices include an option to make black text on a white background appear as white text on a black background. This simple inversion reduces the total amount of blue light emitted from the screen.
Physically Distance Yourself from Your Devices – The further away a source of blue light is from your face, the less it disrupts the production of melatonin. Thus, be sure to keep your devices at least 14 inches from your face in the evening hours.
Wear Blue Light Blocking Glasses – As an alternative to apps like f.lux and Twilight, blue light blocking glasses is another way to protect your eyes when using a smart device. What’s more, they also block out blue light emitted from other electronic devices such as televisions.
Read and Watch Only Predictable and Relaxing Content – Avoid reading, playing or watching anything just before bedtime that could be stimulating or anxiety-provoking such as news, emails, apps, and social media. Instead, stick to familiar and low-key content such as re-runs of a favorite television show or an easygoing novel. Also, consider making a playlist of relaxing music or nature sounds to use as part of your evening wind-down routine.
Mute All Incoming Alerts and Notifications – As evening approaches, start checking your smart devices less frequently to get into the habit of ‘unplugging’ for the night. Also, make sure to set your smartphone to block all alerts and notifications during the hours you normally sleep to help overcome the phenomenon of FOMO or “fear of missing out.”
It’s safe to say that bright screens, unexpected alarms, and information overload from excessive use of electronic devices at night can all compromise sleep quality to some degree.
While any of these tips can help curb your reliance on these gadgets, the most important takeaway is to remember to prioritize your sleep above everything else. Only then will you start to see positive changes in your health and well-being.