You’re Probably Reading This in Bed. Here’s Why That’s a Problem.
Digital devices: a blessing or a curse?
The ubiquity of wireless internet and mobile devices have changed human behavior in ways we can’t even begin to understand yet. While these technologies are still in their relative infancy, the effects of omnipresent mobile devices can already be seen in many areas of our daily lives. For one, it can’t be denied that smartphones are changing the ways we interact with one another. It’s now commonplace and socially acceptable to completely ignore one another in public and opt instead to interact with our phones in lieu of real-life social interaction.
It also can’t be denied that phone use has a profound impact on health. Chiropractors and orthopedists are beginning to diagnose several new disorders related to smartphone use such as “tech neck” or “texting thumb.” Our attachment to our devices has also made driving much more dangerous, as distracted driving has now become one of the leading causes of auto fatalities nationwide (despite the fact that many of us are still in denial.
What do digital devices have to do with sleep?
Aside from those health threats, one of the most significant behaviors seemingly changed forever by smartphones is the act of sleeping. Many people find it hard to put the phone down at the end of the night, even bringing it with them to bed to catch a few more late-night tweets before they fall asleep.
Recent studies have found that as high as 81% of smartphone users report using their phones within an hour of bedtime, while 66% used smartphones within a half-hour of falling asleep. Even more worrisome, 35% reported using their phones up to five minutes before sleep, and 14% claim to use their phones until their last moment of consciousness each day.
While you might think your nighttime phone use is harmless, the medical community thinks otherwise.
That late-night exposure to harsh artificial light can alter your brain’s ability to feel tired and cue its natural sleep responses, leading to a host of sleep disorders.
A 2014 study published in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences reported that “the use of portable light-emitting devices immediately before bedtime has biological effects that may perpetuate sleep deficiency and disrupt circadian rhythms, both of which can have adverse impacts on performance, health, and safety.”
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A similar study of the effects of digital media on children and adolescence came to a similar conclusion, reporting that the types of light emitted by smartphone or tablet screens can disrupt the brain’s natural circadian rhythm and melatonin levels, particularly when used in a darkened room.
Essentially, all that light exposure can trick the brain into thinking it’s daytime, leading to insomnia, disrupted sleep, and irregular bedtimes.
Smartphone and app makers are aware of these issues, and many have released products they claim can help mitigate the effects of nighttime screen use. Apple’s Night Shift feature, for example, “automatically adjusts the colors of your display to the warmer end of the spectrum—making the display easier on your eyes.”
While it’s commonly claimed that these types of colored light filters can mitigate the sleep disturbances caused by artificial light, recent research has begun to cast doubt on those claims. Ultimately, the current scientific literature suggests that any nighttime or bedtime screen use has a harmful effect on sleep health no matter what precautions are taken.
One option which still appears viable is the use of special blue-light blocking glasses which serve the same function as features like Night Shift while also dimming the amount of light that enters users’ eyes.
It’s not just smartphone users’ sleep habits which are suffering, though. More and more research supports the conclusion that frequent smartphone use is harmful to users’ sex lives and relationships. In one study conducted by Durham University’s Center for Sex, Gender and Sexualities, nearly half of the participants reported delaying, hurrying, or interrupting sex due to at least one partner using a smartphone. Some even admitted to answering calls or messages in the middle of sexual encounters.
No worries, here’s the solution…
Can anything be done about the growing role of smartphones in our nighttime behaviors, both asleep or otherwise? Or is this the new modern human condition? For their part, medical researchers and sleep scientists recommend a few relatively easy behaviors to mitigate the effects of nighttime phone use. For one, stop using your phone or other screens two hours before your desired bedtime.
Secondly, leave the phone far from your bed – or better yet, leave it in another room at night. “Do Not Disturb” and other features are also useful at night to prevent sleep disruptions or disturbances. Above all else, just remember: it can wait. Whether you’re in the car or in your bed, your phone isn’t the biggest priority in your life. You are. Remember that your phone is a tool, not a crutch, and that your health is far more important than your Instagram feed.