It’s past midnight, but you’re still staring at the ceiling, unable to fall asleep. You toss and turn for awhile, and finally pull out your phone. Might as well take a quick peek at Instagram since you’re already awake, right?
But, what a lot of us don’t realize is that our smartphones are part of the problem in the first place. Not only do they make it harder to disconnect and prepare for restful sleep, they can make it even harder to fall back asleep if we wake up during the night.
Digital Distractions from Sleep
It’s time for bed, but first, just one more episode on Netflix. Just a few more minutes browsing Reddit. There’s a link to a discussion on Quora… and now it’s somehow 2:00 a.m. and you’re on Wikipedia freefalling through the life histories of members of British royalty. With so much content available to us at any given moment, we never run out of things to read, watch or listen to. This can lead to a type of insomnia that isn’t caused by stress, hormones or anything internal except a fear of missing out. Lifehacker says that about 40% of people bring their phones into the bedroom to act as alarm clocks. A significant portion of the population also brings their laptops into the bedroom in the evening. But, once they are there, getting ourselves to turn them off can be difficult.
Late Night, Bright Light
But, the unending stream of things to do and see is only part of the problem. The light of your digital devices themselves can be sending signals to your brain that inhibit sleep. The New York Times says that 40% of Americans suffer from insomnia at some point in any given year. Smartphones and the light that they emit may be part of the problem.
The light from your computer screen, tablet or phone is a bright blue light. It is the same frequency as morning sunlight. This causes a problem with sleep because your brain uses light (or the lack of it) as a signal to emit melatonin. Melatonin, which is produced in the pineal gland, helps you relax and become calm enough to go to sleep. But, when you are exposed to the blue-white light of your digital screens, your brain gets the signal that it’s time to be awake and active.
This can make it difficult to settle down. And, every time you pick up your phone to pass the time while trying to fall asleep, you make the problem a little worse. With so many people bringing their phones into their bedrooms at night, it’s little wonder that 10 to 15% of the population struggles with chronic insomnia.
Getting Back on Schedule
One of the best ways to eliminate the problem with technology and sleep is to ban your digital devices from the bedroom entirely. If you are one of those who depend on your smartphone to act as an alarm, the answer can be simple and low-tech: alarm clocks can be purchased for only a few dollars at any discount store. If you like the assortment of alarm tones available on your phone, you can spend a little bit more on Amazon to find alarm clocks that offer not just an assortment of noises but even triggers like scents or light to wake you in the morning.
Instead of playing on your phone before bed, spend a little time meditating or reading a (paper) book. These activities can help slow your brain down and get you ready to transition more smoothly into sleep.
A Technological Fix for a Technology Problem
Not ready to give up your laptop, tablet or smartphone by your bedside?
Luckily, there are some technologies that can put on the brakes for us when we can’t stop ourselves and can ease us into the transition to nighttime modes. Computers running Windows can be scheduled to shut down at a set time every evening. You can override it if you are in the middle of something urgent, but, the cue can be enough to convince you that it’s time to power everything down and go to sleep.
Your phone also has features that can prompt you to put your devices away and tuck in for the night. Google Play offers a free app called SilentTime that allows you to set a specific time for your phone to switch over to silent mode. You can set a schedule that silences the phone based on the day of the week and to let through calls or texts from specific numbers. This way, you get emergency phone calls if you need them but don’t get an alert that someone shared your Facebook post.
There are also apps that can help change the light that your phone emits as the day gets later. iPhones with Apple’s new iOS 9.3 have a feature called “Night Shift.” When enabled, this feature gradually changes from cool, bright blue light to warmer, more sleep-friendly hues. MacBook users can also use the free f.lux app.
There isn’t a one-size-fits-all answer to our problems getting adequate sleep. But, by making small changes, like finding new ways to escape from information overload and bright, digital light, we can make it easier for our brains to shut off for the evening and transition to restful sleep.