Dateline, Portland, Oregon, Amelia J. Wilcox, Ph.D.: Are you having problems with insomnia, your sleep disrupted by difficulty falling or staying asleep? The screens you use in the hours before sleep or take to bed with you at night could be part of the problem.
Sleep disruption’s impact on well-being:
A good night’s sleep has become the unicorn of our age—we’ve heard the myths but have yet to catch sight of the magical creature. And sleep is a kind of magic, well worth hunting down. Just a few examples of what we are doing while we sleep will illustrate what I mean. During sleep, glial cells clean our brains of the day’s neurochemical residue, young bodies grow and all bodies repair muscle and tissue damage brought about by the day’s activities. Sleep regulates ghrelin and leptin, two hormones that are important to appetite regulation and the feeling of being full. Restful sleep allows us to wake refreshed, ready to meet the challenges of a new day. It is essential to mood regulation. Sleep is vital to health and well-being.
Disrupted sleep and screen use:
There are many things that can disrupt a good night’s sleep. A major culprit—one that is both the easiest and perhaps the most difficult to control—is screen time. Most of us have grown accustomed to constant contact—texts and Instagram photos come in with no heed to the hour of the day. Squeezing in just a few more email replies has become a nightly ritual for many, justified by a more controlled inbox, reinforced by a boss who replies in real time, or (for our kids) the anxiety that comes with 'needing' to respond to messages as soon as they come in. And available entertainment—the all-hours access to binge watching episodes of favorite shows has become a nightly ritual. These things have changed the terrain of sleep preparation for countless people.
The implications of these new rituals on sleep go well beyond squeezing in the last email reply or no longer having to endure the clever cliff-hangers that script writers once used to keep us in suspense from week to week. The ritual of actually leaving friends or work behind at the end of the day, and the discipline once supplied by network scheduling is now up to us as individuals. For many, staying up at night in front of our screens is the new normal.
Your pineal gland:
Buried deep in your brain is the pineal gland. Small and mighty, this brain structure’s singular mission in life it to create melatonin, a hormone that makes us sleepy. The pineal gland is deactivated by light. The turning on and off of melatonin is essential to the sleep-wake cycle of your circadian rhythms. The light spectrum provided by your favorite screens—phones, tablets or laptops—bathes your eyes in the bright light of a sleep disrupted night. It does so because the light travels through your eyes to your brain, which is not evolved to recognize that light as a Netflix episode or a book on an e-reader. Reading the light as daylight, your pineal gland shuts down melatonin production, and your brain gears up to get ready for a new day.
Clinical life in the age of technology:
As a clinical psychologist, I see the results of insomnia in my practice all the time. As a college professor and a parent, I am particularly concerned about a new source of sleep disruption. Text books and other online materials are becoming ubiquitous in 21st Century education. It is certainly less expensive to download an electronic copy of a book, and more of my college students are making that understandable economic choice all the time. My daughter’s high school made the decision to go entirely online for textbooks last year. It is great on the back to have a tablet replace a dozen heavy textbooks. But as parents, we need to understand that teens and young adults are developmentally more likely to have sleep disruption. And in an unfortunate trick of nature, it appears this age group is even more sensitive to the impact of lighting on the pineal gland than are the rest of us.
What to do:
If you are having trouble with sleep at night, try putting down your devices in favor of a book or conversation. Don’t even allow electronic devices in your room for a while, to see if it helps your sleep.
If you are a parent, making sure your kids keep screens out of their bedrooms probably feels like a losing battle. Serve as an example—they will learn by watching you. And talk with your kids about their pineal gland and sleep. It is unfair for a group that appears already to be perpetually sleep deprived to be unintentionally making things harder on themselves.
My parents had a television in their room in the 1980’s. Why wasn’t this understood then?
Many of us remember going to sleep at night to the distant sounds of Johnny Carson or Jay Leno, and though it wasn’t nearly as common as it is today, many families did have televisions in their bedrooms. The difference between a television and a personal electronic device has to do with both the light spectrum, and the distance from your face. A television does not have the blue light spectrum, and across the room the light it does have had little or no impact on our pineal glands. A screen propped up on a pillow in your lap, more. The worst culprit is a smart phone—held close to your eyes, blue light spectrum, access to the universe—could there be a better recipe for disrupted sleep? Plus, when you finally do get to sleep, there is a high likelihood someone will ping you and it’ll start all over again.
Is there anything we can do to counteract the light source?
The best thing anyone can do is turn these devices off a couple of hours before sleep. This is increasingly difficult to do, especially for students who have come to rely on them for educational access. Plan your studies accordingly. If you have trouble with sleep, evening studying should be in printed form. Print from your tablet, study from notes, use a physical text. If you find you absolutely have to use your screen at night, turn the brightness down as far as possible—doing so will decrease its activating effects on the brain. And do everything you can to keep your phone, tablet and laptop out of your bedroom at night.