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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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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:
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.
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