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We are often told about the effects of smartphones on our sleep. Sitting in bed at night responding to message notification, illuminated by the pale glow of your screen, stimulates the brain just when you’re trying to prepare it to shut down.
As many as 60% of us sleep with our mobiles in the bedroom, within easy reach. When you look at 18-34 year olds, that figure rises to over 70%. Simply put our phones are a constant link to the outside world which many find painful to sever, even briefly.
Aside from the distraction factor of smartphones, there are solid scientific reasons that looking at a screen late at night can keep you from sleeping. Your body’s sleep cycle is governed by circadian rhythms; mental, physical and behavioural changes in the body based on a roughly 24 hour cycle. For example, your body produces a hormone named melatonin in response to darkness. Melatonin is a sleep promoter, and foods rich in the substance have been shown to help insomniacs sleep better.
The glow produced by tablets and phones is rich in “blue light”, which is recognised by special cells behind our eyeballs. This light makes your body think its morning (red light, on the other hand, signals its time to sleep). A study found that those using mobile devices with orange tinted glasses (which filter out blue light) had significantly higher levels of melatonin that those who saw the full spectrum.
Even e-readers like the Amazon Kindle, which use electronic ink rather than a backlit screen, can affect how you sleep. People who read e-books before took longer to reach the REM stage of sleep, considered the most restorative. What’s more their episodes of REM sleep were shorter than those of a control group.
All of this presents a compelling picture that ubiquitous use of smartphones may be affecting sleep patterns on a global scale. Sleep deprivation is associated with a nasty range of conditions including heart disease, obesity and diabetes as well as eventual brain damage in extreme cases.
This is particularly worrying for children, who need significantly more sleep than adults but are also more likely to have their own mobile devices, a recent study in medical journal Pediatrics found. Children who sleep in the same room as a screen got less, and more interrupted, sleep than their peers. What’s more no less than 24% of 18-24 year olds agreed with the statement that they didn’t sleep as well due to technology. Although children were not included in this particular study, its likely that the rate for adolescents would be even higher.
The ubiquity of smartphone devices is a relatively recent phenomenon which, to a certain extent, society has yet to adapt to. One solution would be to introduce screen technology to cut down on blue light (or even introduce red light later in the day). Given how vital sleep is for our health and wellbeing, its about time technology developers started looking for ways to preserve it!