How Smartphones Are Ruining Our Sleep

It goes without saying these days that mobile technology is revolutionizing just about every aspect of our lives. It’s easy to forget just how radically human existence has been changed by the smartphone because we never get a break from the endless flow of new devices and applications being introduced.

Could you have imagined as a child that you would be carrying an unimaginably powerful computer you could actually talk to in your pocket? Six years ago, you would have laughed in my face if I asked you to believe you’d be playing Skyrim on a handheld. Made by Nintendo.

See what I mean? Without a pause for reflection, the changes become just part of the norm as the pace of change quickens like the thrum of an excited heartbeat. Social scientists, psychologists, and other researchers are scrambling to determine just how pervasive and significant these changes might be, but the truth is we don’t know. All we can do is jump onto the back of the beast with the rest of humanity and see where it carries us.

It’s not all a mystery, though. One area of technologically-induced change which is becoming apparent is our nighttime sleep habits. Starting with the invention of the incandescent light bulb, we have been tricking our bodies and minds into staying up later and later by altering the light environment to which the human mind evolved to be suited. Whereas our brains’ circadian rhythms used to rise and fall with the Sun, electric lights, televisions, and now mobile device screens are altering how the brain responds to light to trigger sleep.

The problem of nighttime screen use is so prevalent in the United States, in fact, that some doctors are calling it a sleep “epidemic.”

The scale of the problem was revealed in a recent Deloitte survey of adult smartphone users which found that among 2,000 American smartphone users between the ages of 18 and 75, over 80% report using their smartphones in the hour before bedtime. Another 66% reported smartphone use within a half an hour of falling asleep, while 35% said they used their phones in the five minutes before going to sleep. Worst of all, 14% say they regularly use their phones up until the moments prior to falling asleep, as if they fell asleep with phone in hand. Why are these data so worrying?

For one, all that harsh, digital light in your face is bad for your sleep health. A study in the journal Pediatrics reports that the light given off by smartphone screens has been found to disrupt circadian rhythms, particularly when phones are used in a dark bedroom. The darkness of your room causes the pupil to dilate, allowing more of your smartphone’s light to enter your eyes and keep you watching Netflix on autoplay.

Similar studies have found that the use of any “portable light-emitting device” immediately prior to bedtime can perpetuate sleep deficiencies like insomnia. The effects of these aren’t just felt in the morning; the side effects of sleep deficiencies affect individuals just as much during the day and potentially can be dangerous. Most worrying of all, if persistent over time these sleep deficiencies can lead to serious health complications.

What can be done to battle this growing “epidemic?” You mean, aside from just putting your phone down? Seriously, just put it down. For one, don’t use your smartphone two hours before bedtime – or any screen for that matter. If you must use your phone at night, try using a blue light filter application like the built-in “Night Shift” on iOS or “Twilight” on Android.

And if you absolutely must have your device with you at night in your bedroom, try to keep it out of reach and put it in a “Do Not Disturb” mode. With a little luck, we won’t grow to find ourselves an entire generation riddled with sleep disorders and vision problems. Twitter can wait until the morning, I promise.

If you find yourself struggling to sleep well, you might also try checking out more sleep tips over at SleepZoo.com.


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