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by Rosemary McClure
Updated June 7, 2023
If you feel lost at night without your phone, you’re not alone.
Most adults take their screens to bed with them, research shows, whether for scrolling through social media, catching up on the news or texting friends. In a 2018 report in Sleep Health, for instance, 70 percent of the 855 study participants, whose average age was 43, reported using social media on smartphones or other devices in bed at night.
Such late-night scrolling could play havoc with your nightly appointment with the sandman. A growing body of research indicates that exposure to the blue light that glows from smartphones and other electronics, such as computers and tablets, might keep you awake at night.
Young adults who used smartphones for longer periods at bedtime took longer to fall asleep and slept fewer hours overall, according to a 2020 report in the International Journal of Preventive Medicine. This study involved 450 18-25 year olds, but research shows that bedtime device use can affect people of all ages. In a study of 844 people ages 18 to 94 reported in Social Science & Medicine in 2015, those who used electronics before going to bed — or in bed — had poorer sleep quality, slept less overall and experienced more daytime fatigue. Among 1,225 adults ages 18 to over 80, using a phone in bed for more than an hour was associated with the poorest sleep quality, according to a 2020 report in Sleep and Biological Rhythms.
The LED light emitted by digital screens may prevent your brain from releasing the hormone melatonin, which tells the body it’s time for bed and controls sleep and wake cycles, research suggests. And needless to say, scrolling online or texting may stimulate your thoughts rather than settle them.
The upshot? Snuggling up to our devices may aggravate existing sleep woes — and create new ones. “Sleep problems are becoming increasingly common,” says Liese Exelmans, postdoctoral researcher at the Leuven School for Mass Communication Research in Belgium, who was involved in the 2015 study. “Multiple studies indicate a decrease of 1.5 to two hours [of sleep] compared to 50 years ago.”
What’s worrisome, Exelmans says, is how sleep problems can affect driving. According to the National Safety Council, being tired makes people three times more likely to be in a car accident; one in five fatal accidents involve a drowsy driver. The risks don’t end there. Chronic trouble sleeping has been linked to serious health conditions, such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes, obesity and depression.
How long before bed should people unplug?
“It would be best not to take your media into your bedroom,” Exelmans advises. “For those who can’t manage to do this, be smart. Dim the light on your phone and put it into [airplane] mode. If you use it as an alarm clock, try switching to an old-fashioned alarm clock instead.”
Exelmans admits that it’s difficult for most people to make these changes, as smartphones have become ubiquitous. “Ironically, we even use them for tracking our sleep quality.”