Technology and Sleep

Technology helps facilitate education, communication, and entertainment, and technological devices have become a crucial element of navigating daily life. However, some devices may interrupt or negatively impact sleeping patterns. These include laptops, tablets, smartphones, and televisions – all of which feature screens that emit blue light. Overexposure to blue light in the evening can make it more difficult to fall and remain asleep.

Technology use can also cause overstimulation before bed and – if not managed properly – cut into sleep time.  We discuss some of the common ways that technology can interfere with your rest, along with some helpful tips to limit technology use for better sleep.

Technology Can Have Adverse Effects on Sleep

Studies indicate that screen time before bed can increase the amount of time it takes to fall asleep, reduce sleep quality, and affect attentiveness the following day. In the long term, nightly exposure to light in the evening may increase the risk of certain sleep disorders and cancers.

Technology can affect your sleep on multiple levels. These include:

  • Interference with Circadian Rhythm: Exposure to blue light suppresses the production of melatonin, a hormone that induces sleepiness. This is actually an advantage during the day because it keeps you feeling alert and refreshed. However, melatonin release in the evening helps you relax before bedtime. Suppression of melatonin can cause you to stay up later and sleep less than you normally would.
  • Excessive Brightness in Sleeping Areas: Household LED lights also emit blue light. Though we do not stare directly into them like phones and other devices, it is important to dim other bedroom lights or switch to warm lighting to reduce exposure to blue light before sleeping.
  • Overly Stimulating Content: Certain types of content may have a stronger impact on sleep. For example, studies have found that exciting or violent video games increase heart rate, make it harder to fall asleep, and impair sleep quality.
  • Reduced Sleep Time: In addition to the effects of blue light and stimulating content, technology use may cut into time that is usually reserved for sleep. Sleep hygiene recommendations usually advise against using the bed for anything else except sleep.

The severity of technology’s impact on sleep may depend on the device and type of use. For example, studies indicate that passive use of technology, such as watching a show or listening to music on a device, has less of an effect on sleep than active use, like playing an interactive game, texting, or video chatting.

One study compared the sleep patterns of individuals who read a book before bedtime. One set of subjects read printed books, while the other group used e-readers that emitted blue light. The results indicated that the participants using light-emitting e-readers took longer to fall asleep, experienced poorer-quality sleep, and reported feeling less alert the following morning.

Can Blue Light Filters Help Sleep?

Specialized glasses with orange-tinted lenses designed to block blue light – known informally as blue-blocking glasses or amber glasses – have gained popularity in recent years. Researchers have studied blue-blocking glasses for treating sleep disorders such as insomnia, delayed sleep-phase disorder, and shift work disorder, as well as jet lag. Although more research is needed to determine whether blue-blocking glasses are effective for adults and children, some people have noticed sleep improvements after wearing them at night.

Many electronic devices come equipped with “nighttime modes”, which can be activated to project less light from their screens. Nighttime modes may not be effective for improving sleep on their own. For example, one study focused on the Night Shift mode for iPad tablets. Researchers found that using Night Shift mode and adjusting the device’s brightness settings are both needed to reduce melatonin suppression for nighttime users.

Technology Can Be Especially Harmful to Children’s Sleep

Sleep is a critical aspect of health. One study found that children who watched more television, used a computer, played video games, or used their cell phones before bedtime not only experienced disruptions to sleep quality and quantity, but were also more likely to be overweight. These children were also more likely to feel tired in the morning and skip breakfast, a habit that has been linked to weight gain. Obesity can increase the likelihood of experiencing obstructive sleep apnea, which disrupts sleep and can lead to morning headaches.

Managing their child’s exposure to technology can be a difficult undertaking for today’s parents. A recent survey found 40% of children own a cell phone by the time they reach fifth grade. Nearly two-thirds of children take their phones to bed, and a large percentage send or receive text messages during the night. According to a separate survey, 60% of children use electronic devices in the hour before bed.

How Long Before Bed Should My Child Stop Using Electronic Devices?

Experts recommend that children and teens keep screens out of the bedroom and aim to stop using electronic devices at least 30 to 60 minutes before bed. These recommendations are a good place to start for adults as well.

For some, eliminating screens from the bedroom may not be possible due to work or family commitments. However, it is important to set a distinct time between device use and sleep. If you do keep your device in your room, consider turning off lights and silencing notifications.

Tips for an Electronic-Free Bedtime Routine

Humans need consistent sleep each night to maintain their overall health. To achieve restful sleep, try creating a bedtime routine for yourself and your family. Maintaining consistent habits each night can help you reach a more relaxed state and facilitate a smooth transition to sleep. There are several key elements to a productive bedtime routine.

Turn off Notifications

Most electronic devices can be customized to mute new emails and other notifications after a certain time. Toggle the settings of your laptop and smartphone apps to go silent in the evening.

Institute a “No Screen” Rule Close to Bedtime

Researchers have observed a significant effect on sleep for children who use electronic devices in their bedroom within two hours of bedtime. Screen time within this window has been linked to inadequate sleep duration, poor quality sleep, and excessive daytime sleepiness the following day. In addition to restricting screen time before bed, parents may want to consider limiting their child’s overall electronic device use. As little as 90 minutes of screen time in the evening can elevate feelings of alertness and make falling asleep more difficult for kids.

Establish Rules for Using Electronic Devices in Bed

It’s important for children to only use their bed for sleeping – otherwise they have a hard time associating their bed with sleep. Consider a rule for your child about not watching television or using other electronic devices when they are in bed.

Establish a Consistent Pre-Bedtime Relaxation Activity

Whether it is taking a bath, meditating, or completing a yoga routine, performing the same activity each night before going to bed can prepare you for restful sleep.

Stick to the Same Schedule

Maintaining a set time to fall asleep and wake up helps keep your bedtime routine consistent. One study indicated that individuals who kept the same sleep schedule and reduced their exposure to blue light in the evening fell asleep more quickly and reported better sleep quality than a group with an inconsistent sleep schedule.

Avoid Wake-Promoting Substances in the Evening

Nicotine, alcohol, and caffeine can disturb your ability to fall and remain asleep. Though it may seem like alcohol can help you sleep at night, research suggests that the substance disturbs sleepers later in the night.

When you are ready for bed, ensure your bedroom is dark, quiet, and comfortably cool. If you are unable to sleep after half an hour, leave the bedroom and do a calming activity in low light until you feel sleepy again.

Resources

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Michael Breus, Ph.D - The Sleep Doctor is a Diplomate of the American Board of Sleep Medicine and a Fellow of The American Academy of Sleep Medicine and one of only 168 psychologists to pass the Sleep Medical Specialty Board without going to medical school. Dr. Breus is a sought after lecturer and his knowledge is shared daily in major national media worldwide including Today, Dr. Oz, Oprah, and for fourteen years as the sleep expert on WebMD. Dr. Breus is the bestselling author of The Power of When, The Sleep Doctor’s Diet Plan and Good Night!