How Does Technology Affect Sleep?
We live in a world dominated by electronics. From smartphones to television, electronic devices keep us entertained, productive, and connected to our work, family, and friends.
Our lives are so enmeshed with personal tech that we take it to bed with us – literally. According to a 2014 survey by the National Sleep Foundation, 95 percent of people report using some sort of electronic device within an hour of bedtime, and nearly three-quarters of parents report that their children sleep with at least one electronic device.
Technology has fostered a resurgence of the mattress industry, enabling ever-constant design improvements, online availability, and more variety than ever before. It’s also made sleep products more affordable and accessible, leading to popular innovations such as personal sleep trackers and “smart beds” that react to the sleeper’s body temperature. Technology even helps you find articles like this one about how to get better sleep.
But for all its benefits, technology seriously interferes with sleep. Regular use of electronic devices negatively impacts how much sleep you get at night, how restorative that sleep is, and how well you function the next day.
In this article we’ll explore the various ways technology truly impacts sleep, how it affects children versus adults, and finally, what you can do to power down and get a good night’s sleep (without sacrificing technology completely).
How do individual technologies impact sleep?
The biggest obstacle tech devices present to sleep is their level of blue light. Blue light is pervasive in modern technology, existing in smartphones, tablets, televisions, e-readers, computers, and even fluorescent lighting.
High concentration of blue light
Blue light is the strongest and brightest wavelength, which means it pierces the photoreceptors in our retinas the most intensely. When your brain senses blue light from an electronic device, it perceives it as sunlight. As a result, it assumes it’s still daytime, so it’s not yet time to kick off melatonin production. Melatonin is a hormone that regulates your sleep-wake cycle. It releases at night, inducing sleep. The longer your brain delays melatonin release, the harder it is to fall asleep, and stay asleep.
Sound and other interference
Blue light isn’t the only problem with technology. Electronic devices introduce a wonderful cacophony of beeps, chimes, and sounds into your environment. From texts to calls to Facebook notifications, almost everyone can recall a time when a noise from their phone jolted them awake. Considering one-fifth of Americans go to sleep with their phone ringers on, it’s no surprise than 10% also report waking in the middle night a few times per week as well.
Even when a phone is on silent, studies have found that the electromagnetic cellular and wi-fi signals interfere with sleep quality.
Increased anxiety and cortisol levels
Certain types of technology deliver content that is stimulating in and of itself. Responding to stressful work emails late at night activates your body and mind. Likewise, watching a dramatic TV show or playing an intense video game before bed keeps your mind alert and triggers that “fight or flight” mode. Your body reacts physically to this kind of stress by increasing your cortisol levels, at the same time delaying or inhibiting melatonin production. All this combines to prevent you from the essential winddown that needs to happen for you to relax sufficiently and fall asleep.
Studies have also documented our unhealthy relationship with our phones. A 2016 study of 700 college students separated participants from their phones. They felt so anxious about being apart from their phones, that both their smartphone usage and nighttime awakenings increased. This kind of separation anxiety results in using your phone right up to the moment you fall asleep, further delaying melatonin production and letting cortisol reign.
Passive vs. interactive activity
The duration, application, and type of device you use all affect how it interferes with your sleep. For example, interactive tech use, such as playing a videogame or texting, has been shown to be more detrimental to sleep than passive use such as watching television. However, passive use is not something to brush aside: one study found that using an iPad for 2 hours at maximum brightness significantly delayed melatonin production.
Smartphones and tablets can be especially dangerous because we hold the screens much closer to our eyes than televisions and computers. For instance, a Harvard study found that people who use e-readers as opposed to paper books require an additional 10 minutes to fall asleep. That fact alone might not seem too concerning, but the fact they also released half the amount of melatonin and spent less time in REM sleep certainly is.
Regardless of which device you use, one thing’s for sure: the longer you use it at night, the less amount of sleep you can expect to enjoy.
Source: BMJ Journals
Does technology affect children's sleep more than adults?
Using technology at night creates even worse sleep problems for children – and poses wide-ranging negative effects beyond that, from academic performance to general health and well-being.
Teenagers who report texting or emailing after bedtime – even once a week – also report significantly higher levels of daytime sleepiness, and enjoy a full 30 minutes less sleep than their peers who don’t leave their phones on. Similarly, teens with televisions in their bedrooms tend to have later bedtimes, shorter total sleep times, and a tougher time falling asleep.
When children don’t get enough sleep, they have difficulty focusing, processing and retaining information, and are at greater risk of poor health. The negative effects of technology on our children’s sleep are especially problematic because tech use is so normalized. They grew up with smartphones, and are used to living in a world of devices.
It’s not uncommon for kids to unwind using technology, whether they’re engaging on social media, watching television, or playing a video game. This leads many children to view their smartphone as a sleep aid, rather than a hindrance. Children with this mindset have been shown to go to sleep later, sleep less, and report more daytime sleepiness than their counterparts.
Even if children weren’t already comfortable with technology, it’s forced on them anyway. The majority of homework assignments require computers to be completed, and since homework is done after school – in the late afternoon to late night – children are stuck sitting in front of bright electric light for hours on end. Worse, competing priorities from work, school, and extracurricular activities make it difficult to squeeze homework in earlier versus later.
The infographic below, created by student bloggers at Rasmussen College, reveals the various ways technology affects the sleep of young people in particular.
There is good news, however. Here are several ideas for counteracting the negative effects of technology on your child’s sleep:
- Be a good sleep role model. From the day they’re born, your child looks to you for guidance in all walks of life, including sleep. So it’s important for you to practice good sleep habits yourself, to encourage your child to follow in your footsteps. The National Sleep Foundation found that if their parents don’t have an electronic device in their bedroom, their children are much less likely to, as well. More on this in the next section.
- Get your children in the habit of reading before bed. Children who read from an early age have better literacy rates and emotional intelligence. Plus, the cognitive benefits of bedtime reading continue through the pre-teen years. Creating a habit of reading before bed early on makes it easier for kids to keep up with it as they age – instead of replacing a book with their smartphone.
- Explain the effects of technology on sleep to your child. No one likes to be told what to do, and that’s especially the case for teenagers, as many parents will attest. Rather than telling your child to turn off the computer and go to sleep, educate them on how technology affects sleep. Then empower them to make their own decisions.
- Reorganize your child’s schedule to make more time for sleep. With increasing demands and fears of not doing enough to get into the best college, it’s easy for teens to get overbooked. Consider removing one or two activities from their schedule. Work with your child to find a way to get homework done earlier, so they can live with a bit less stress and a bit more sleep.
How should you power down to get a better night’s sleep?
Not getting enough sleep on a regular basis is a serious problem. The issues caused by tech-related sleep deprivation pervade all aspects of life:
So, what can you do to get a better night’s sleep? Here are our top recommendations.
- Remove electronics from the bedroom. This is your best bet for saving yourself from technological disturbances during the night. Not only will you benefit from a peaceful lack of light or noise, it will also help train your brain to view your bedroom as a place for sleep – not work, socializing, or surfing the internet.
- Stop using blue-light devices (including phones, computers, TV, tablets and e-readers) at least 30 to 60 minutes before bed. If you can’t possibly imagine what to do for an entire hour before bedtime, here are some ideas: practicing yoga or meditation; reading a book or magazine; listening to audiobooks, podcasts, or music; or talking to someone IRL in your house.
- During the day, practice not responding to emails, texts, or other notifications immediately. This helps you gradually lessen your cortisol response so you feel less dependent on your phone and can leave it in another room while you sleep.
- Generally limit your electric use during the evening to less stimulating activities, such as using social media instead of playing a video game.
- Turn off notifications with “Do Not Disturb” mode. Many phones now include a feature that prevents notifications, sounds, or vibrations from going off, except for items you specify (such as texts or calls from your spouse).
- If you can’t help using technology late at night, at least use “night mode.” Most smartphones and ereaders now come with this feature installed. Turning it on changes your screen to use primarily red light instead of blue light, so it’s overall dimmer and less intense on your eyes. For older devices, invert the color setting at night so the background is black with white text. You can also download apps that will do this for you. Alternately, dim your device and keep it at least 14 inches away from your face.
- Use tinted glasses when you’re working on the computer, especially at night. These are yellow or orange and reduce the amount of blue light you perceive, although they’re not as effective a filter as “night mode.”
- Limit your exposure to light at night. Besides your devices, the light around your home can also keep you up at night. Use dimmers or softer light bulbs. Don’t shine light toward your eyes – opt for lamps over overhead lighting. If you live on a street with lots of light pollution, get blackout curtains for your bedroom. Then, when you wake in the morning, the bright light from the sun will help jolt your body awake even more.
- Set up a regular bedtime routine and practice good sleep hygiene. Go to sleep and wake up at the same time every day. Avoid caffeine, alcohol, drugs, and overly sugary, spicy, or fatty foods in the evening. Keep your bedroom cool, in the mid-60s.
- Get a great mattress. The best way to motivate yourself to get to bed earlier is by turning your bedroom into a place you can’t wait to fall asleep in each night. Choose a top-quality mattress that supports your unique sleep style. We’ve made it easy – we’ve combed through over 95,000 customer reviews to find the best mattresses around.
Research on technology and sleep
- “Sleep and use of electronic devices in adolescence: results from a large population-based study”: In 2012, Norway researchers looked at the sleep patterns and use of electronic devices during the day and night in nearly 10,000 adolescents aged 16-19. They found technology use worsened sleep across the board.
- “Effects of Filtering Visual Short Wavelengths During Nocturnal Shiftwork on Sleep and Performance”: A 2013 study by the University of Toronto observed that bright indoor light suppresses melatonin production, but that wearing blue light-blocking goggles can reduce the impact of blue light enough to make it comparable to being in dim light conditions.
- “High sensitivity of the human circadian melatonin rhythm to resetting by short wavelength light”: In 2003, Harvard University researchers discovered that blue light suppresses melatonin for twice as long as green light, and shifts circadian rhythms by the same amount.
- “The impact of light from computer monitors on melatonin levels in college students”: This 2011 study compared the effects of using a computer without goggles, with orange safety goggles, and with goggles emitting blue light. Those who used blue-light promoting goggles had significantly lower melatonin levels than the others.
- “Light level and duration of exposure determine the impact of self-luminous tablets on melatonin suppression”: In 2013, researchers monitored participants’ use of iPads at full brightness, and found that while one hour had minimal effect on melatonin release, two hours significantly did.
- “Exposure to Room Light before Bedtime Suppresses Melatonin Onset and Shortens Melatonin Duration in Humans”: A 2011 study shows the impact even room light has on our melatonin production. Individuals were placed in rooms with either dim light or normal indoor lighting in the 8 hours before bedtime, and the ones in room lighting conditions experienced shorter melatonin durations by 90 minutes.
- “Sleeping with technology: cognitive, affective, and technology usage predictors of sleep problems among college students”: This study of over 700 college students revealed that smartphone dependence and related anxiety increased both the student’s usage of their phone as well as their nighttime awakenings.
- “Evening use of light-emitting eReaders negatively affects sleep, circadian timing, and next-morning alertness”: Harvard researchers found that using portable electronic devices like e-readers delays circadian clock and melatonin production, and reduces the amount of REM sleep and alertness the following day.
- “Adolescent Sleep Patterns and Night-Time Technology Use: Results of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s Big Sleep Survey”: A 2014 study of Australian teenagers uncovered that over 70% of them kept at least 2 electronic devices in their bedroom. The surveyors also found correlations between nightly computer use and shorter weekday sleep, as well as nightly cell phone use and sleeping in on weekends.
- “The Use of Technology at Night: Impact on Sleep and Health”: This study had several notable findings, including that the amount of devices used increased the resulting sleep issues.