Sleep

Go the F**k to Sleep [Without Your Technology]

Smartphone use before sleep hurts your brain.

Posted Jan 01, 2015

My apologies to Adam Mansbach, who wrote the highly engaging bestseller Go the F**k to Sleep in 2011, but I am borrowing his book title to alert you to an ongoing problem: Sleeping with your technology gadgets is not good for you.

I have argued often in this blog about how technology can be a great source of information and communication, but we have gone overboard and are now using it 24/7/365. In my most recent book, iDisorder, I tried to help people understand the impact of technology use on mental health by highlighting the way overuse of these tools predicts signs and symptoms of psychiatric disorders. Other scientists have shown similar results in looking at the impact of technology use on depression, narcissism, OCD, and ADHD.

The bottom line is that technology, like any tool, can be useful until it is overused.

A hammer is fine for a job that requires a hammer. But try using a hammer for every job you have to do from one sunrise to the next sunrise, and you will see the problem that we are facing. What we carry in our hand or pocket or purse is the same tool that we perch next to our bed as we attempt to go to sleep, and this is creating serious problems.

When we are well-rested, sleep is a natural process. During the day, we are exposed to mostly short-wavelength, blue light, which is responsible for releasing neurotransmitters in our brain that energize our body and allow us to work effectively during the day. As the daylight starts to fade, and the sun goes down, light in the red part of the color spectrum becomes predominant, and it serves a totally different function of releasing melatonin, which helps us eventually, several hours later, fall comfortably asleep.

The problem lies in something that many of us do that disrupts our ability to go to sleep and to stay asleep. We bring our smartphones to bed with us and keep them with us all night long. Why is this bad for us? 

First, from a purely chemical perspective, our devices use light-emitting diodes for their displays, and LEDs emit light largely in the blue wavelength, which then releases the same alerting neurotransmitters as does the morning sky. A recent study by researchers at Harvard Medical School examined the effect of reading from an e-book compared to reading from a paper book on nighttime sleep and morning alertness and found exactly the results I expected.

Compared to reading from a paper book, reading from an e-book led to an average of 10 minutes longer to fall asleep, delayed melatonin onset by an hour and a half, reduced melatonin release of an average of 55 percent, reduced valuable rapid eye movement sleep by 12 minutes, and reduced morning alertness. Now, granted, this was a study of only 12 college students, but they participated for two weeks as inpatients and had their blood taken hourly as they read a print or e-book for four hours prior to attempting to fall asleep and as they slept. I suspect that the study will be replicated often.

Second, our recently completed study of 391 adult American college students ranging in age from 18 to 69 found that only 2 percent of them put their phone in another room when they went to sleep. The remaining 98 percent had their phone close by the bed on vibrate (39 percent) or with the ringer left on (42 percent). A handful of our adult students (17 percent) turned off their phone but kept it close by in the bedroom.

In addition, we asked if they ever checked their phone when they awoke at night, and while 51 percent claimed they did not check their phone at night, 34 percent checked it once a night, and 16 percent checked it more than once, effectively every time they awoke.

Why am I concerned about this behavior? Or, more importantly, why should you be concerned? In spite of it appearing like our brains are not very functional during sleep, the opposite is true. Sleep is quite the hub of activity in our brains.

As the normal process unfolds, we move through four phases, from light sleep to deep sleep and, ultimately, a dream state. Each of these phases serves a purpose in doing housekeeping in our brain. On a macro level, the brain performs what is known as synaptic rejuvenation, which consists of pruning off unneeded connections and consolidating or practicing needed ones. On a micro level, our nighttime brain flushes out toxins that are unneeded byproducts of daytime brain functioning and prepares our brain for the new day.

Sleep deprivation (or poor sleep) disrupts this entire process, and we awaken with a brain that has not been given the time to complete its housekeeping. Studies of sleep deprivation show that dreaming states (REM sleep) are so important that when we are deprived of REM sleep and then allowed to fall back to sleep, we skip the first four phases and jump right into REM sleep. The longer we are deprived, the more we crave REM sleep.

Sleep deprivation has also been shown to negatively impact activity in the hippocampus, which is the seat of our memories. Poor sleep or sleep deprivation also impacts our moods and makes our brain more attuned to negative feelings than positive ones.

What is more troubling are data by the National Sleep Foundation showing a 50-year decline in average sleep duration, as well as studies that show that 90 percent of American adults use their electronic gadgets within the last hour before bedtime at least a few nights a week and that the average college student loses 46 minutes of nightly sleep by awakening to answer phone calls or text messages. Long-term brain studies have shown that sleep-deprived adults lose brain volume and that just one night's poor sleep can lead to less efficient processing in the prefrontal cortex, which is your executive controller of all brain activity. Add it all up, and you have a grumpy, gadget-using, sleeping-with-gadgets population who are facing fitful sleep, foggy mornings, and difficulty thinking and retaining what they learned during the day. 

With the data from our study, we attempted to predict the variables that might impact sleep quality, including executive functioning (how well you address problems, solve them, and make solid, conscious decisions), affective functioning (anxiety about possibly missing out on something important in our virtual world—often called FOMO or fear of missing out), daily smartphone use, and nighttime awakenings to check the phone. Using path analytic tools, we found several paths to a predicted bad night's sleep:

  • PATH 1: Poorer executive functioning → poorer sleep
  • PATH 2: Poorer executive functioning → more daily smartphone use → poorer sleep
  • PATH 3: Anxiety → more daily smartphone use → poorer sleep
  • PATH 4: Anxiety → awakening more at night to check the phone → poorer sleep 

So, it appears that both our cognitions—our ability to think and make clear choices—and our anxiety about missing out on "vital" goings-on in our virtual worlds lead to getting a worse night's sleep, which then leads to poorer daily functioning.

My recommendations:

1. Don't use your smartphone or e-reader in the last hour before sleep. If you must use a device, a recent Mayo Clinic study recommends dimming the brightness of your device and holding it at least 14 inches from your face to limit the melatonin suppression from LED lighting.

2. Remove your smartphone, tablet, and computer from your bedroom at least one hour before you go to sleep. If you have to keep any of these devices in your bedroom, then use a do-not-disturb function or turn them to silent or completely off so that you are not tempted to look at their screens if you awaken in the night.

3. Practice good metacognition. Think about what you do with your phone and other devices at night and try to limit uses that will negatively impact your sleep.

4. Reduce your anxiety about keeping up with everyone and everything on the Internet. This means that you need to practice not "needing" to address every electronic communication as it comes in. Try to check in with your email and texts on your time schedule, not as a Pavlovian response to an alert or notification. Nobody will mind if it takes you 15-30 minutes to get back to them, and nobody will care if you don't read and "like" their post for an hour or two.

I hope that you have a healthy and happy new year and that 2015 is an exceptionally restful year. Help your brain make the most of a good night's sleep, and I promise you more productivity and health in the new year.