How Technology Impacts Sleep

About 90 percent of Americans report technology use within an hour of bedtime. The implications of our increasing technology use are still being studied. However, it’s not hard to notice a connection between how much we use it and how much (or how little) sleep we get.

Why does technology keep us up? There are a few reasons.

Blue Light and Melatonin

The primary reason our devices are keeping us awake? The blue light of a screen.

Blue wavelengths boost our attention, reaction times, and mood. They help wake us up during the day, but at night they can disrupt our circadian rhythms. What blue light most effects is the production of melatonin.

Melatonin is a hormone our brains produce to fall asleep. Our brains create it when it’s dark and stop when it’s light. Staring at the blue light of a screen after dark tricks our minds into thinking it’s still daytime, which wakes us up when we should be getting sleepy.

The “Can’t Put It Down” Problem

Blue light halting the production of melatonin isn’t the only reason electronic devices affect our sleep. Often, it’s a simple matter of getting caught up in what we’re doing. We’ve probably chanted “one more episode” to ourselves as we binge-watched a show or “one more chapter” as we read an engrossing book at least once, only to eventually look at the clock and find it’s now 4 a.m.

This kind of continuous activity wakes us up. Once our minds are active, it takes time to settle them down.

To avoid pulling an all-nighter to finish a season or book, choose something easy to put down. Instead of watching an intense drama that ends on a cliffhanger every episode, queue up a standalone episode from a sitcom. Instead of a page-turning thriller, read a short story collection.

Background Noise and Interference

So you put your phone aside and fell asleep when you should, only to wake up in the middle of the night from a beep notifying you about a text message or status update. In a poll about technology use and sleep, 22 percent reported going to bed with their cell phones on, and 10 percent said they wake up a few nights a week from their phone.

Even if you set the phone to “Do Not Disturb,” there’s evidence that its electromagnetic fields may disturb our sleep. A 2007 study reported that certain mobile phone signals might interfere with our sleep patterns. However, a 2011 study reported no significant sleep disturbances on participants from cell phone signals.

Technology and Mental Health

Technology affects your mental health for better and worse. It makes it easier to connect with others such as friends and family, but too much can take its toll.

2018 study noted that young people who spent more time on Internet activities and texting were worse off psychologically than those who spent more time on in-person interactions. The happiest participants devoted only a small amount of time to electronic communications.

Why does too much technology make us unhappy? Social media makes it easy to compare ourselves to others. Many of us feel judged on social media or we feel an obligation to live up to perceived expectations of friends, family, and strangers.

Too much technology can leave us feeling unprepared to deal with people in face-to-face interactions, and it can become a vicious cycle. We don’t want to interact with people, so we spend more time on the Internet instead of getting real-life experiences, leaving us just as unprepared as we were before.

Procrastination can also cause stress and anxiety. If we put off chores and tasks to spend more time on the Internet, at the end of the day, we may not feel good about ourselves and what we accomplished.

Too many anxious and unhappy thoughts like this can cause a sleepless night.

Negative Effects of Sleep Deprivation

Most of us know that getting less sleep affects our well-being. We all feel the effects of a poor night’s sleep. Still, many underestimate how much sleep they should be getting. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found in 2016 that one in three adults is not getting enough sleep.

How much sleep should we be getting? Adults ages 18 to 60 need at least 7 hours of sleep every night.

Not getting a good night’s sleep causes daytime sleepiness. You may have trouble staying on task and making decisions. You’re more likely to make mistakes and react slower, which can have tragic consequences when you’re driving.

And it’s not just one sleepless night that causes consequences. Long-term effects of sleep deficiency include an increased risk of heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, kidney disease, and obesity.

How to Prevent Sleep Disruption

The simplest step to better sleep may still be hard for many. For the best results, you should move all computers, tablets, smartphones, TV screens, and other such gadgets out of your bedroom.

Try to stop using technological devices two hours before bedtime. If you need to keep using a computer or mobile device, see if there’s a nighttime screen mode that replaces blue light with more sleep-friendly yellow lighting. Some devices have a nighttime mode installed, while for others, you may have to download an app.

If you’re using an e-reader with black text on a white screen, reverse it so that you’re reading white text on a black screen. This reduces the light the screen gives off.

If you use your cell phone as an alarm clock, consider a nightstand clock instead. Many alarm clocks offer more than just a blaring beep, letting you record a personal message, play a favorite song, or have an artificial sunrise wake you. You may want to turn the alarm clock’s face away from your bed, so you don’t get too caught up in anxious thoughts about the time.

A good sign you’re getting enough sleep is that you wake up a few minutes before your alarm the next day. When that happens, it’s best to get out of bed rather than linger and go back to sleep. Doing so can make you feel more groggy.

Do you have to sleep with a mobile phone in your room to remain “on-call” for work? Then disable unnecessary notifications for social media and other apps.

If you want to take more drastic action to get your sleep schedule back on track, go cold turkey and leave your electronics behind while you get back to nature. A 2013 study found that the body clocks of eight participants started following the day-night cycle more closely after a week spent camping.

Campers not only skipped screen time with mobile devices, but they also went without other technological gadgets such as flashlights. Their only exposure was to natural light, such as the sun and campfires.

Should I Use Sleep Tracking Technology?

We’ve discussed how technology can prevent us from sleeping, but what about ways it can help? Many smart mattresses include sensors to measure your heart rate, breathing, movements, and more to provide you a daily report of how well you slept. Certain fitness trackers and smartwatches have similar functions.

Should you take advantage of these technologies? You can, but we suggest you don’t worry too much about the results. Many people get too anxious about how much sleep they should be getting, ironically losing sleep in the process.

We recommend checking your results weekly or even monthly if you use sleep trackers. It should give you an idea of how you can improve your sleep health without obsessing over better sleep.

Alternative Activities

Cutting technology out of your bedtime routine may leave you wondering how you can unwind after a long day. Some suggestions include:

  • Try journaling for 15 minutes. Writing down your thoughts and problems can help you work through solutions, leaving your mind trouble-free when you’re in bed.
  • Take a warm bath. If you do so about 90 minutes before bed, it can help you fall asleep.
  • Run your body through a few light stretches.
  • Get a massage—many excellent adjustable beds include full-body massagers.
  • Spend time with family.
  • Work on a jigsaw puzzle.
  • Read a print book.

Frequently Asked Questions

What impacts sleep quality?

Aside from blue light exposure, our sleep quality is affected by chronic pain conditions, anxiety, stress, depression, caffeine, prescribed medication, and the setup of our bedrooms. If you experience difficulty falling asleep or waking up in the middle of the night, you may want to speak to your doctor or a sleep behavioral specialist.

What foods affect sleep?

Foods and drinks with caffeine are big sleep inhibitors. Even decaf coffee has a few milligrams of caffeine. Stay away from coffee, tea, soda, and chocolate six hours before bedtime.

Try to have your last big meal 4 hours before bed, as digesting a lot of food can keep you up and provoke heartburn. Spicy foods can also trigger heartburn and other symptoms of acid reflux.

How does technology affect children’s sleep?

A 2017 study noted that children who watch TV or use a computer or smartphone close to bedtime are more likely to experience sleep problems. It also found that children who watch a lot of TV are more likely to be overweight.

Conclusion

Cutting back on your use of technology an hour or two before bedtime can make it easier to fall asleep. We suggest creating a bedtime routine that relaxes you without relying on a screen. If it’s not possible to completely shut off your electronics for work reasons, turn off unimportant notifications and dim your screens to reduce blue light exposure.

This article is for informational purposes and should not replace advice from your doctor or other medical professional.

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