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3 Ways In Which Phones Affect Our Sleep And What We Can Do About It

Raise your hand if you've ever found yourself scrolling through social media or watching endless videos in bed while "trying" to sleep. We've all been there. However, scientific research consistently shows that our beloved smartphones are not our allies but our biggest sleep saboteurs. Let's explore the significant ways smartphones interfere with our sleep and discover effective strategies to overcome them.

Three ways phones affect our sleep

The wrong type of light, at the wrong time of day.

One of the major ways in which phones affect our sleep at the biological level is by interfering with our circadian clock, thus disrupting the sleep-wake cycle. The blue light emitted from the screens is especially at fault here.

How and why does this happen?

The information about the light and darkness in our environment, be it sunlight or artificial light perceived through our eyes, is very important for maintaining the proper functioning of our bodies and brains. As a matter of fact, light is the major player in regulating our internal body clock, also known as the circadian clock.

The “master” circadian clock is located in a brain structure called the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN). The name of the structure is not so important to remember, but what is important to keep in mind is that to “know” what time of the day it is, this structure receives information about the light from special light-sensitive cells in our retina (a nerve tissue at the back of our eye) called melanopsin cells. After having the light information in hand, the SCN passes this information to all other parts of our bodies, such as the liver, the muscles, etc.  This information exchange from the eyes, through the SCN, to the rest of the body is constantly synchronized with the amount and type of light in our environment to help our bodies and brain function optimally. For instance, if we see a bright light, the SCN will pass along the information to the rest of the body that it is daybreak and it is time to wake up and be active. In contrast, if it is dark or the light is ambient, the SCN will transmit the message that the day is over and it is time to slow down and prepare for sleep.  

On the contrary, if we start looking at bright lights late in the evening, when we are supposed to be getting in a relaxed state and preparing for sleep, this will immediately signal to our brains and bodies that it is daytime and we are actually not ready to sleep yet. The blue light emitted from smartphone screens does precisely this. Due to its wavelength, the information about blue light is an immediate cue to our brain and body to stay alert and awake. The wrong type of light in the evening also interferes with the natural production of sleep hormones, such as melatonin, and other important neurochemicals, such as dopamine. This leads to overall poor quality of sleep and decreased well-being [1-9].

It is important to note that there is nothing wrong with the blue light per se, and it is perfectly okay to look at the screen during the day (as long as it is not excessive), but it is contraindicated in the evening.

Overstimulation and inability to relax

The constantly changing content on the screen and the never ending notifications are difficult to resist, right? Both of these are huge stimulants for our dopamine system, and we find it extremely difficult to put our phones down [9]. This may not only lead to abuse of our phone time but also keep our brains alert in the evening time, which is when our bodies and brains have to slow down. Practices such as mindless scrolling or reading work e-mails can lead to increased anxiety, worry, and rumination, all of which put us in a state of alertness and disrupt our ability to sleep.

Sleep procrastination

We all have heard of procrastination at work or school, but with sleep? Yes, there is. Sleep procrastination describes postponing one’s sleep to a later hour without a necessary reason to do so. Using smartphones in the evening before sleep can potentially exaggerate one’s sleep procrastination [10]. “Just one more video…”, “One more e-mail…”, or “Let me check that meme page…” is the perfect recipe for a late night and miserable morning.

What can you do to mitigate the negative effects that phones have on your sleep?

1. The best will be to not look at screens 1-2 hours before sleep and just leave your smartphone and other digital devices in another room.

2. If you really have to use your phone, switch on to nighttime mode, which will at least filter the blue light but will not mitigate some of the other interference effects from phones.

3. If you are having a hard time quitting cold turkey from using your smartphones at night, try at least to block some of the most distracting applications, such as Instagram or Youtube. You can also “train” for this by getting small “phone” breaks during the day.

4. Replace your phone time with something else that will benefit your sleep: try reading a book (on paper or a reader), having a cup of camomile tea, breathing exercises, yoga, journaling, or just snuggling with your pet or loved one.

4. Build a relaxation routine: the hour preceding the sleep should be as relaxing as possible and screen-device free.

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  1. Hattar, S., Liao, H. W., Takao, M., Berson, D. M., & Yau, K. W. (2002). Melanopsin-containing retinal ganglion cells: architecture, projections, and intrinsic photosensitivity. Science, 295(5557), 1065-1070.
  1. Kondratova, A., Kondratov, R.  (2012). The circadian clock and pathology of the ageing brain. Nature Review Neuroscience
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  1. Pauley, S. M. (2004). Lighting for the human circadian clock: recent research indicates that lighting has become a public health issue. Medical Hypotheses, 63(4), 588-596.
  1. Lewy, A. J., Ahmed, S., & Sack, R. L. (1995). Phase shifting the human circadian clock using melatonin. Behavioural Brain Research, 73(1-2), 131-134.
  1. Wright Jr, K. P., McHill, A. W., Birks, B. R., Griffin, B. R., Rusterholz, T., & Chinoy, E. D. (2013). Entrainment of the human circadian clock to the natural light-dark cycle. Current Biology, 23(16), 1554-1558.
  1. Ana Lembke (2021). Dopamine Nation: Finding Balance in the Age of Indulgence
  1. Cui, G., Yin, Y., Li, S., Chen, L., Liu, X., Tang, K., & Li, Y. (2021). Longitudinal relationships among problematic mobile phone use, bedtime procrastination, sleep quality and depressive symptoms in Chinese college students: a cross-lagged panel analysis. BMC Psychiatry, 21(1), 1-12.

About the Author: Dr Mila Marinova is a scientist in cognition and neuroscience and a registered psychologist. Her work is primarily experimental within academic and research settings. However, her passion also in providing popular psychology education, science- and evidence-based advice and practices to help people build better habits, learn more efficiently, and improve their overall cognition and performance.

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