"You woke us up!"
More than once I've been chastised for sending an early-morning text message. I once replied sarcastically, "You know, someday they're going to invent a way to silence phones at night...."
I wish I'd just said, "Sorry about that." But behind my snarky defensiveness was a grain of truth—that we're much less likely to be awoken by early messages if our phones aren't on, or at least are not in our bedrooms.
In May of last year I completed a research study on college students' sleep with my thesis students at Haverford College. One of the things we asked students was how often they used various forms of technology (e.g., tablets, cell phones) in the hour before bedtime.
We found a highly significant correlation between technology use and sleep problems, confirming results from earlier studies showing that certain forms of technology use are associated with worse sleep.
One recent study that also found links between technology use and poor sleep was the National Sleep Foundation’s 2014 Sleep in America Poll, titled “Sleep in the Modern Family.” The study of over 1100 parents found that kids who used tablet computers in their bedrooms at night averaged almost an hour less sleep. Similar results were reported for use of TVs in the bedroom.
Dramatic effects were also found for leaving on electronic devices at night; kids who left on 2 or more devices had nearly triple the rates of parent-reported “fair or poor” sleep compared to those who never left on any electronics. The full report is available here.
Additional research has shown that use of technology in the bedroom is also linked to obesity—potentially, as the authors suggest, through the effect of technology use on sleep.
A recent review of these effects is available here. As the authors of the review note, these results by themselves don’t tell us if using electronics in the bedroom causes poor sleep. Perhaps people with poor sleep turn to their TVs of smart phones as a way to fill the sleepless hours—in other words, electronic use might be a consequence of bad sleep rather than a cause. More work needs to be done to figure out exactly why more technology use equals worse sleep.
Nevertheless, there are reasons to believe that using cell phones and other forms of technology interferes with sleep. For one, the blue light that the screens emit has been found to disrupt sleep, by interfering with the release of melatonin. And even if we don't intend to spend time on our phone during sleep hours, just using it to check the time when we awaken in the middle of the night can lead to checking email or responding to text messages. If a cell phone isn’t in the bedroom, or is turned off, then there’s no risk of being woken up by it.
The most recent guidelines from pediatric sleep experts recommend "no electronics in the bedroom or before bed." So the safest option is to banish technology from the bedroom, and enjoy a relaxing and low-tech environment for sleeping.
My student collaborators at Haverford College were recent grads Noemi Agagianian, Tami Mau, Kylie O’Neill-Mullin, and Gabe Olsen.
Portions of this post appeared previously on sethgillihan.com.