How using electronics before bed impacts your sleep

Checking work emails on a smartphone or tablet in bed before settling down for the night is a bad habit – along with watching the occasional movie on your iPad that doesn’t finish until 12.01am, and swiping right on the dating apps every other night of the week. Let’s face it: almost anyone who has had an electronic device in their house has probably used it rather close to their intended period of shuteye than they should have done… to such an extent that on some nights, they might have struggled to catch any Zs at all!

We therefore thought here at Protect Your Gadget that we would take a closer look at some of the reasons for this, the effects it has on your sleep, and what healthier practices you can adopt.

The science says it emphatically: late-night tech isn’t good for you

If there’s one group of people that we reckon might know a thing or two about the impact that electronics use well into the evening has on sleep quality, it’s the good men and women at the Division of Sleep and Circadian Disorders, Brigham and Women’s Hospital (BWH) in the United States.

The findings of recent research at the hospital suggested that when people used light-emitting electronic devices – such as smartphones, tablets or laptops – in the hours prior to bedtime, there could be a detrimental effect on their overall health, alertness and circadian clock. The latter synchronises the daily rhythm of our sleep to cues in our external environment, and is key to ensuring a genuinely restful and satisfying sleep.

In the words of Anne-Marie Chang, PhD, corresponding author and associate neuroscientist at the Division of Sleep and Circadian Disorders:

“We found the body’s natural circadian rhythms were interrupted by the short-wavelength enriched light, otherwise known as blue light, from these electronic devices. Participants reading a light-emitting e-book took longer to fall asleep and had reduced evening sleepiness, reduced melatonin secretion, later timing of their circadian clock, and reduced next-morning alertness.”

What else about before-bed electronics use should concern you?

Blue light from smartphones and tablets is so problematic for good sleep because it is the strongest and brightest wavelength and when the brain senses it, it perceives this light as sunlight. Your body therefore behaves as if it was still daytime, which serves to delay the production of melatonin, the hormone that regulates your sleep-wake cycle.

However, it is far from the only aspect of your electronic devices that could be hampering your sleep. The many beeps, chimes and other sounds produced by electronic devices could easily wake you up during the night, and even if you seek to avoid this by putting your phone on silent, the quality of your sleep could still be damaged by electromagnetic cellular and Wi-Fi signals.

Don’t forget, too, just how stimulating the actual content to which you are exposed through your electronic devices can be. Many of us are all too familiar with playing an intense video game on our devices in bed… or watching a high-octane TV show on our tablet… or replying to work emails, and then struggling to get to sleep afterwards.

That phenomenon is all about the way your mind is put in alert ‘fight or flight’ mode by such activities, thereby causing your body’s cortisol levels to increase and melatonin production to be delayed or inhibited. It hardly creates the conditions that you need to unwind and achieve a restful sleep.

But there’s hope!

If all of the above sounds rather dreary given the prevalence and seemingly unavoidable nature of technology in our day-to-day lives these days, the good news is that you can counteract some of these unfortunate effects with just a few new habits.

In an ideal world, perhaps none of us would have electronics in our bedrooms at all. However, we also realise that this can be difficult to achieve – not least when you’re trying to instil good habits in your children as well – so even just avoiding the use of blue-light devices at least 30 to 60 minutes before bed could go a long way to boosting the quality of your sleep.
Remember, too, that other forms of light around your home could also keep you awake at night. It isn’t just your electronic devices that can be an issue, but also your light bulbs, so a switch to softer ones or even dimmers could be advisable.

Or, if you really do have to use your electronics just before bed, at least buy devices with ‘night mode’, and make use of them! This feature will switch your screen from largely blue to red light, with the latter being less intense on your eyes. It’s just one more, albeit small step that could make a big difference to the quality of your sleep and by extension, so much of the rest of your life.