Technology such as mobile phones and tablets have become indispensable tools in the way we live our lives. They help us to work efficiently, to stay in touch with friends and family and to keep up to date on the world around us. For many of us, they are within reach at all times, including bedtime. But staying engaged with these devices late into the night can have a negative effect on the quality of our sleep for many reasons. Poor sleep, in turn, can have a lasting negative impact on our physical and mental well-being.
In order to fall asleep and stay awake, we need controlled release of the hormone melatonin. Our periods of wakefulness and sleepiness throughout the day are known as our circadian rhythm. Exposure to light at bedtime – especially the blue wavelength light in most handheld devices – can disrupt this natural rhythm. It creates the impression of daylight and suppresses the natural release of melatonin, making it harder for the body to fall asleep.
We all use our phones for different activities. Some of these can be passive, like browsing the internet or watching a video. Others, like interacting with friends and work colleagues, can be more interactive. These interactive activities can be mentally stimulating in a variety of ways. Checking and sending work emails can invoke stress, while viewing certain content or playing games online can trigger the release of hormones such as adrenaline. In experiencing these sensations, our bodies can find it more difficult to rest, thereby reducing our ability to fall asleep.
Using electronic devices is a way for us to engage with the outside world. We interact with friends directly by calling or texting or indirectly by checking social media feeds. Our phones and tablets have also become a way of extending our workplaces into our homes. When we carry out these activities from bed, it stops being a place of restfulness and sleep. This effect doesn’t just impact on us in the minutes before we go to sleep, it can continue throughout the night. Technology alerts run the risk of waking us in the middle of the night, interrupting our sleep and affecting its quality.
Ideally, the bedroom should be a technology-free zone. While this can be hard to achieve, small steps can make a big difference. Many of us rely on the alarm function of our phones to wake us in the morning. Investing in a (non-digital) alarm clock is one way of removing the need for your phone to spend the night on your nightstand. Alternatively, try to remember to set the alarm on your phone earlier in the day, before your technology wind-down period starts.
Try to give yourself a period of transition when going to bed. Put your phone or tablet away at least 30 minutes before you plan to go to sleep. It’s also a good idea to limit the amount of time you spend on these devices at night. Studies have shown that there is less impact on melatonin production in iPad use after dark for up to one hour. However, when time spent on the device was increased to two hours, melatonin suppression was more significant.
If you absolutely cannot put your phone away before bed and prefer to fall asleep gazing into the screen, there are steps you can take to reduce the negative impact of the glare your phone is giving you back. For iOS devices, reducing the screen’s brightness or setting the device to evening mode can help. If you are an Android user, Night Filter is an app which automatically adjusts the colour of your display based on what time of day it is. Using orange/red lights after dark, rather than the blue wavelengths, have less of an impact on melatonin release.