Cell phones and sleep… What’s the connection?

By Hailey Shafir, LPCS, LCAS, CCS

Smart phones have changed the way we work, play, and connect with others. According to Nielsen reports from 2018, Americans spend almost 11 hours per day interacting with some kind of media (internet, television, podcasts, etc.) and reports from 2019 indicate that about 3 of these hours is spent on a smart phone. While technology continues to offer innovative and convenient solutions for a variety of human problems, it also comes with several drawbacks. Recent research is beginning to suggest that smart phones and other mobile devices are having negative impacts on our relationships, our productivity at work, and even our mental and physical health. One impact that is particularly concerning is the way that cell phones are affecting sleep habits.

Sleep is essential to all aspects of health and mental health. During sleep, muscles build, tissues repair, the heart rests, and the brain transfers massive amounts of information into our long-term memory banks. Sleep also helps to regulate our mood, hormones, and stress chemicals, warding off disorders like depression and anxiety and ensuring we have energy during the daytime. Cell phones interrupt sleep patterns in several ways. According to the National Sleep Foundation, 71% of people sleep with their phone either in their hands, in their beds, or within arm’s reach on a nightstand. According to sleep experts, this is a problem for a number of reasons. Read on for more information about how our sleep is being impacted by our phones.

Cell phones emit blue light that stimulates the brain

One way that sleep is affected has to do with a particular kind of light known as blue light that is emitted from cell phones and similar devices. Blue light has stimulating properties similar to caffeine, making it more difficult for us to fall asleep and stay asleep, and reducing our overall quality of sleep. Even when we are not looking directly at our cell phone screens, they still may be emitting light into the room, and even small amounts of light can result in poorer quality sleep. These effects may be even more pronounced it you are a person who has an existing sleep disorder.

Cell phones light up areas of the brain involved in addiction

In a 2018 study on young adults, researchers found that 12% of participants were using their phones in the middle of the night (after they reported going to sleep) and 41% had at least one night during the four-week study where their phone woke them up. Staying up to text, surf the web, play games or go on social media platforms is distracting, and might even be addictive. Some of these activities have been shown to activate areas of the brain closely linked to addiction, causing a person to experience pleasurable sensations similar to those produced by drugs or alcohol. These chemical rewards can make it difficult for a person to moderate or stop an activity, resulting in people using their devices more or for longer than they intended.

Cell phones disrupt your sleep environment

Other ways that cell phones can interrupt sleep are more obvious- cell phones produce light and sound that can cause people to wake up during the night. Forgetting to silence notifications or leaving an alarm on could result in waking up in the middle of the night unexpectedly, and some might have trouble falling back asleep. Also, because there are 5 stages of sleep ranging from lighter sleep to deeper sleep, people waking up throughout the night might not be reaching the deeper stages of sleep that have the most restorative effects on the body and brain.

Set limits with your phone to protect your sleep quality

Luckily, there are ways to counteract the negative impact your phone may be having on your sleep. Experts recommend having a cut off time each evening where you stop using your phone. The cut-off time can be as short as 30 minutes before bed or as long as 2 hours, depending on what works for you. If you do need to use your phone before bed, go into the settings and de-activate the blue light by choosing the night light setting. Minimize the chances of being awoken during the night by silencing your notifications and alarms and by putting your phone in a place where if it lights up, it won’t wake you. You might want to consider getting an alarm clock instead of using your cell phone’s alarm function, which might cause you to default to using it more at night or keeping the sound on.

Smart phones are here to stay. We need to learn how to integrate them into our lifestyles in ways that are healthy and minimize their detrimental effects. In the coming years, we are likely going to hear a lot more about the potential downsides of smart phones and other tech, with more health and mental health professionals advising us to set limits on our usage. We are beginning to see this trend now as scientists begin to understand the ways that these devices impact our bodies and brains. Because sleep is so essential to both, setting smart limits on our use of smart phones just makes sense.

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