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5 Things Adult Gamers Should Know About Their Sleep

Here are a few things adults should know about how video games affect sleep.

Key points

  • Gaming more than an hour a day has been linked to a 30% higher risk of poor sleep quality.
  • Researchers found that longer stretches of gaming are linked to less total sleep time, more trouble falling asleep, and more daytime sleepiness.
  • Treatment for problematic gaming, including cognitive behavioral therapy, may be needed alongside treatment for sleep problems.

Does gaming affect your sleep habits? Several studies discussed in this post shed light on how sleep is affected and what you may do to achieve better sleep results.

Gaming at night leads to mental and physical arousal. A 2005 study conducted in a group of young adult men found that gaming at night increased heart rate, reduced feelings of sleepiness, and reduced the power of brain wave activity that occurs in the transition to sleep. Researchers also found that nighttime gamers took longer to fall asleep and spent less time in REM sleep.

The takeaway? Gaming late at night and/or close to bedtime is likely to be mentally and physically stimulating and counterproductive to sleep. Keep games out of your PowerDown Hour before bed.

Bright lights You’ve heard me talk a lot about the impact of bright, artificial nighttime light on sleep. Gaming at night in front of a brightly lit video screen can have significant effects on the body, making it harder to fall asleep and change sleep patterns.

The amount of gaming you do daily can affect your sleep quality and sleep quantity. A 2014 study of more than 800 adults between the ages of 18-94 investigated the impact of video game volume on sleep quality. Recognizing that daily gaming amounts vary and that weekends are a time when people are likely to spend more time playing video games, researchers determined the average daily gaming volume for participants from the information they collected about daily video game use over the course of one week.

They found that the amount of time spent gaming was a predictor of several changes to sleep and sleep problems, including reduced sleep quality, fatigue, insomnia symptoms, and delayed bedtimes and wake times.

Researchers also found:

  • Gaming more than an hour a day was linked to a 30% higher risk of poor sleep quality.
  • More gaming volume also predicted longer sleep latency (aka a greater amount of time needed to fall asleep), lower sleep efficiency (a measurement of sleep quality), and a greater chance of using sleep medication.

Other recent research found that longer stretches of gaming are linked to less total sleep time, more trouble falling asleep, and more daytime sleepiness.

The takeaway? As with so many of our other lifestyle choices and habits (including drinking alcohol and the composition of our diet), moderation matters. Regardless of the time of day you’re playing, commit to a daily time limit and stick to it. And be consistent about the space that gaming takes in your daily life, on the weekends and during the week.

Extended gaming can create social jet lag. Both studies above found that longer gaming periods were linked to later bedtimes and later wake times, and greater daytime sleepiness. Gaming that alters bedtimes and wake times can lead to social jet lag–when our bodies are biologically out of sync with the social clock that keeps time for our daily lives. Social jet lag is a sign of circadian sleep-wake rhythms that are out of sync, and this can have a significant impact on how we function and perform during the day, how we sleep at night, and our underlying mental and physical health.

The takeaway? Sleep thrives on routine and consistency. When we set limits for gaming, it’s important to stick to them, including on the weekends. A gaming binge on Saturday and Sunday is likely to cause significant changes to your weekend rest, including shifting bedtimes and wake times that can throw circadian sleep-wake rhythms out of sync. Compromising sleep on the weekend, and interfering with our sensitive circadian sleep timing, can launch a domino effect that creates sleep problems throughout the next week and beyond.

Intense video games can be particularly disruptive to sleep. The content, pace, and mental demands of gaming appear to be a significant factor in gaming’s sleep effects. What does intensity mean concerning video games? Intense video games are fast-paced, often with lots of action and demands for rapid reactions and decision making. They require high degrees of focused attention and vigilance and contain much visual information on screen for the brain to process.

A 2019 study found that both the duration of video game playing and the intensity of games were predictors of poor sleep quality. Among the two factors, the intensity level of video games was a stronger predictor of problems with sleep quality than the duration of gaming.

The takeaway? If you’re a fan of action games and other games that demand a great deal of mental effort and a high degree of concentration, it’s even more important to regulate both the amount of time you spend playing and avoiding playing these games near bedtime to protect your nighty rest.

Problematic gaming can mean major problems for sleep. For some people who play video games, gaming becomes a behavioral issue that can significantly disrupt sleep and well-being in many facets of life. The presence of gaming in our lives is still relatively new, and the scientific and medical consensus over what defines “problematic gaming” is still under a lot of debate. Is it an addiction? A behavioral disorder? Is problematic gaming a symptom of another psychological issue, such as depression or anxiety, or is it a primary behavioral and mental health problem?

Because our understanding of problematic gaming is still emerging, it’s difficult to arrive at an estimate about how common it is. Studies have placed the prevalence of problematic gaming anywhere between less than 1% to more than 30% of gamers. Some recent research analyses suggest that problematic gaming may occur in a range of 3-5% of gamers.

Most often, problematic gaming is associated with playing games excessively, playing games to the detriment of physical and psychological well-being, and showing addictive behaviors in relation to games.

In recent years, a growing body of research has investigated the impact of problematic gaming on sleep. New research from 2021 examined 34 studies on the relationship between problematic gaming and sleep. Across those nearly three dozen studies, researchers found problematic gaming strongly linked to several sleep problems, including:

  • Sleep deprivation
  • Short sleep duration
  • Poor sleep quality
  • Later bedtimes and wake times
  • Delayed sleep phase disorder, a circadian rhythm disorder that involves sleep-wake rhythms being pushed significantly later into the evening
  • Waking often during the night
  • Daytime sleepiness

The takeaway? There is a lot of work to do in this area to further our understanding of what issues contribute to problematic gaming and how they affect sleep. If you or someone in your family plays games excessively, is highly preoccupied with gaming, has trouble stepping away from games to engage in other activities, can’t reduce their gaming amounts despite trying, is having trouble meeting the demands and obligations of their lives (and enjoying life outside of gaming), is having trouble sleeping, or is experiencing significant detrimental effects (mental, physical, emotional) in relation to their gaming, it’s important to speak to a health care provider. Treatment for problematic gaming, including cognitive behavioral therapy, may be needed alongside treatment for sleep problems.

Sweet Dreams,

Michael J. Breus, PhD, DABSM

The Sleep Doctor™

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