How Your How Your Mobile Device Is Impacting Your Sleep
by Dr. Thomas B. Trafecanty
Trouble sleeping is a problem for many of us. As we struggle to stay awake at our desks and complain to our friends, we fail to examine why we can’t get a full night’s sleep. As much as we don’t want to hear it, it’s very likely that your mobile devices could be causing your insatiable craving for caffeine and puffy red eyes.
According to Ofcom, eight out of ten people keep their cellphones on and close by as they sleep, and approximately half of us use our phones as an alarm clock. Unfortunately, research has shown that sleeping near your phone, or using a mobile device before sleeping, can impact your quality of sleep.
In recent years, numerous studies have found that mobile devices affect the quality and length of our sleep, inhibiting the body’s capacity to rejuvenate and repair itself. At a basic level, smartphones make us “hypervigilant” – increasing the chance of disturbed sleep, but they can also trigger other sleeping problems such as insomnia.
Mobile Devices & Sleep Disorders
Human beings sleep in a five stage cycle, and each phase performs a different function and is essential for overall wellbeing and health. The first two stages of sleep are lighter, non-REM periods, while the third and fourth stages are deeper phases of sleep where the body begins to repair muscle, bone, and skin. During the last stage – REM, activity in the brain increases, memory restores and improves, and dreams become more vivid.
According to scientists, the extensive popularity of mobile devices could cause a huge leap in sleep disorders, due to the fact that the light emitted from digital screens can impact the body clock. Research has found that using your mobile device for as little as two hours before sleeping can cause significant problems.
The bright lights produced on high-quality modern phones interfere with the natural rhythm of the body, tricking our brains into believing that it’s still daytime. The light stimulates the cells within the retina – the area of the eye that transmits information to the brain – informing us of what time it is. This process controls the release of the waking hormone, cortisol, and the sleeping hormone, melatonin. According to the recent study conducted by the Lighting Research Center, a two-hour exposure to light from mobile devices can suppress melatonin production by as much as 22%.
The research team involved in the study at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute exposed thirteen individuals to self-luminous devices before sleep. The suppression values for melatonin after 60 minutes weren’t deemed significant, but after two hours, the exposure had left a measurable effect.
How Certain Types of Light Impact Sleep
A study conducted in the U.S. discovered that devices like smartphones, tablets, and laptops emit between 30 and 50 lux on average – approximately half the illumination of a typical lightbulb. Preliminary reports have shown that this particular level of light emission is sufficient in delaying the timing of the circadian clock (our internal body clock), while suppressing the production of melatonin.
While phones and tablets may not be as bright as a lightbulb, there is a particular type of light that these products emit that may be affecting your sleep: blue light. The pineal gland – a tiny organ within the brain – starts to release melatonin a couple of hours before you go to bed. This hormone makes sleep more inviting by reducing alertness, however, light – particularly blue light – can prevent the pineal gland from releasing the hormone, thereby warding off sleep. Settling down for sleep with your laptop, tablet, or smartphone makes it much more difficult to get a healthy night’s sleep.
The science of why the blue light emitted by mobile devices keeps people awake has led to the discovery of a photoreceptor called Melanopsin. Though we’ve long been familiar with the various cones and rods that construct our visual capabilities, Melanopsin was discovered recently in retinal ganglion cells – which are sensitive to blue light. Since then, experimental research has found that the average person using mobile devices before bed may experience poor sleeping habits.
The impact of blue light is even more significant for teenagers, who are more vulnerable to the effects of light than adults. The reason for this is that the circadian rhythm naturally shifts during adolescents, causing teenagers to feel more awake late into the night. Starting up a video game, television show, or playing on their phone just before bedtime could be enough to push sleepiness away for another hour or two, making early-rises particularly difficult.
How To Get Improved Mobile-Free Sleep
The results of various scientific studies haven’t offered good news for the majority of us that sleep with our phone inches away from our faces. According to Time’s Mobility Poll, around 68% of us sleep within reaching distance of our smartphones. The number makes sense – after all, our phones have entertainment, flashlights, clocks, and more to make them just about essential. However, science suggests that the best thing we may be able to do for our sleep – and subsequently our health, is banish mobile devices from the bedroom.
Although it may seem unnecessary at first, replacing your smartphone or tablet’s alarm clock feature with a real alarm could be crucial to a deeper, healthier night’s sleep. When you go to bed, your aim should be to leave your phone plugged in and charging in another room, which will keep you away from that brain-altering blue light.
The truth is that reducing your exposure to the light emitted by your mobile devices and combatting melatonin suppression begins with avoiding using such devices before bed. Unfortunately, it’s harder than it might seem to kick the habit. If you must use your mobile devices before bed, you could find it helpful to turn down the blue light in your phone settings: instead stick to the other end of the spectrum, with yellow, orange, and red lights.
As more people choose electronic devices for entertainment, communication, and reading, the consequences on health continue to grow. In the past fifty years, there’s been a significant decline in the average quality and duration of sleep. However, getting the right quality of sleep is essential to our physical and mental health.