It’s no secret that light and sleep do not get along. The basic rules of sleep hygiene recommend avoiding bright lights for 30 minutes prior to bedtime. But this simple rule is becoming increasingly difficult to follow thanks to the smartphone.
The result is a often more time surfing and less time snoozing. Let’s take a closer look at how electronics affect our sleep and simple approaches to remedy the problem.
Why is Light So Disruptive to Sleep?
Research points to three main reasons for why light is particularly troublesome for sleep.
- Light is stimulating to the brain.
Even if you’re simply staring at a bright light bulb, it puts your brain into a more alert state. That’s why it’s important to limit bright lights leading up to bedtime regardless of the source.
- The content that we consume on devices like smartphones tends to be very stimulating and engaging.
We live in an online world dominated by social media through which we not only consume content, but can create it with a touch of a button. When you are watching or creating content, your brain is secreting chemicals like norepinephrine and dopamine. These chemicals stimulate the “wake centers” of your brain, making it harder to fall asleep.
- The brain has no way of distinguishing artificial light from sunlight.
Therefore when we are exposed to bright lights at night, the brain is tricked into thinking it is still daytime outside. This leads to a suppression of the brain’s natural sleep hormone known as melatonin. The result is difficulty falling asleep at the desired time.
How widespread is the problem of smartphone use at night?
Recent statistics show that 71% of people fall asleep holding onto their phones, have it in bed or have it close by on their nightstands. Not only is smartphone use at night associated with difficulty falling asleep, it is also associated with poor quality of nighttime sleep.
In fact, a recent study that included over 125,000 children showed that simply having a portable electronic device in the bedroom is associated with poor sleep.
What can you do to ensure a great night sleep?
In an ideal world, shutting off your devices at least 30 minutes prior to bedtime and keeping all devices out of your bedroom is the best solution to this issue. However this is not always feasible or practical.
There are other options to help maintain a good night’s rest. Try to dim your screen as much as possible, as the intensity of light is directly linked to the amount of melatonin suppression. This means that the brighter the light, the more likely it is to decrease your melatonin secretion.
You could also consider using a blue light filter on your smartphone at night. Research shows that blue light decreases melatonin secretion much more than any other visible light color. Red light is least likely to suppress melatonin.
There are several apps that can help decrease or eliminate blue light. These are helpful tools, and dimming the screen and avoiding blue light may help you fall asleep more easily, but remember that nothing is better than disconnecting completely.
Although technology has improved our world in many ways, remember that there are still some areas where it can hurt more than help. Learn to disconnect at night and you might find yourself much more alert, attentive, and connected with your world during the day thanks to better sleep at night.
About The Author
Sujay Kansagra, MD is the director of Duke University’s Pediatric Neurology Sleep Medicine Program and author of the book “My Child Won’t Sleep.” Dr. Kansagra offers Daily Doze readers tips and insight about the importance of sleep, especially for kids who need plenty of rest to grow and develop. Dr. Kansagra graduated from Duke University School of Medicine, where he also completed training as a pediatric neurologist. He did his fellowship in sleep medicine at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, before joining the faculty at Duke as an assistant professor. He specializes in treating a variety of sleep disorders, including sleep apnea, insomnia, narcolepsy and parasomnias. He shares advice on sleep, medicine, and education through his Twitter accounts @PedsSleepDoc and @Medschooladvice. When he’s not busy at work or on social media, Dr. Kansagra enjoys spending time with his wife and two sons. And yes, they are both great sleepers.
Best Night’s Sleep: Not just a sleep expert, but also an expert sleeper, Dr. Kansagra can sleep almost anywhere, thanks to years of sleep deprivation during medical school and residency call nights. But his best sleep is at home with his family, on a mattress he purchased at Mattress Firm long before he joined our team.