Raise your hand if you ever scrolled through social media or watched endless videos while in bed “trying” to sleep! We get it. We all have been there. Unfortunately, however, large corpora of scientific findings clearly demonstrate that when it comes to getting quality sleep and maintaining proper sleep hygiene, our favourite smartphones are not our allies but our greatest saboteurs. Here are the major ways in which smartphones are interfering with our sleep and how to overcome them:
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.
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.
The constantly changing content on the screen and the neverending 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 . 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.
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 . “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.
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 lies in bringing the scientific findings close to the public by 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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Disclaimer: Dr Marinova’s services, their contents, and activities are independent of her teaching and research responsibilities. The advice offered here or on any of her platforms is not of medical or therapeutic nature.