Using your phone before bed hijacks your sleep, but not for the reason you think

Using your phone before bed hijacks your sleep, but not for the reason you think

A good night’s sleep is important for your health. Chronic sleep problems can lead to cognitive impairment and increase the risk of stroke and heart attack. And getting enough rest is a big problem for teenagers, who are facing a sleep crisis due to factors such as late-night technology use, busy schedules and lots of homework. American adults also have trouble sleeping, with 70% of adults reporting that they get inadequate sleep at least one night a month, according to the American Sleep Apnea Association.

There’s been a lot of uproar about the blue light our devices emit, but the ways technology is hijacking our sleep goes far deeper than that. It is the content we watch that has the greatest impact on our sleep, say sleep experts.

So what should we do about it? Sure, you can leave your phone in another room at night, but that might not be possible for adults who want to be reached in an emergency. The easiest solution is to eliminate the temptation to scroll altogether. Tools from tech companies can help, including new features from TikTok and Instagram, two oft-cited sources of late-night distraction.

If we come across alarming news, a scary movie or an annoying work email right before bed or in the middle of the night, the stress hormone cortisol can rise. A spike in cortisol provides an energy boost by moving glucose from a stored state in the body to an active state. “It’s like eating a piece of candy,” says Jamie Zeitzer, co-director of the Stanford Center for Sleep and Circadian Sciences. It can be difficult to come down from that energy rush.

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Positive content can be just as disruptive because it can increase the amount of dopamine or norepinephrine in the brain, two neurotransmitters Dr. Zeitzer says can excite the thalamus—the brain’s information relay center—and disrupt the brain wave oscillations necessary for sleep.

Worrying about not sleeping can make things worse. When we worry about not being able to go back to sleep, Dr. Zeitzer explains, we actually can’t go back to sleep because that worry causes more cortisol to be released.

If any of this sounds familiar, don’t worry. Sleep and digital media experts suggest trying these things:

Know your triggers. Not all screen activities are bad for sleep. Start by considering what stresses or excites you when you look at your phone – and what helps you calm down. You should also be more aware of the time you spend on your device. We tend to lose track of time when we’re on our phones, which can eat into the seven hours of sleep doctors say adults need (teens need eight to 10 hours).

Reconfigure your habits. Once you’ve identified which screen-related activities irritate you, change those activities earlier in the evening and do more relaxing activities closer to bedtime, says Nitun Verma, a spokesperson for the American Academy of Sleep Medicine. Telling patients not to use screens an hour or two before bed is too jarring for some people, he says, and ends up being unsustainable. Instead, he advises people to reduce the level of screen-induced emotion and tension over the course of an evening, so it’s “like landing a plane”.

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Make a list. If you’re someone who worries at night about what’s in store for the next day, some sleep experts suggest making a to-do list before bed so you don’t stay awake making mental lists. You don’t need to get out pen and paper: the note app on your phone makes it easy, or try one of the note apps I mentioned here.

Use technology to fight technology. You may soon be able to mute late-night TikTok scrolling. The video-sharing app, owned by ByteDance Ltd., is testing a new sleep reminder feature. When you set a bedtime in TikTok, the app will mute push notifications for the next seven hours and nudge you to close it. In 2021, TikTok began disabling notifications during night hours for teenagers.

Thanks to a new feature introduced this week, Instagram users have the ability to set times in the app when they don’t want to be disturbed. When silent mode is enabled, you won’t receive notifications and the app owned by Meta Platforms Inc. will send an automatic reply to anyone who DMs you to let them know you’re offline. The app will ask teens to turn on silent mode when they’re on Instagram between midnight and 4 a.m

There are even more choices on the phones themselves.

You can turn on Do Not Disturb on an iPhone or Android phone during the hours you choose, during which time you can only allow calls or notifications from specific people or apps. In the iPhone’s Sleep Focus setting, you can set a sleep goal and create bedtime reminders as well as enable Sleep Screen, which dims the lock screen at bedtime.

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iPhones also have a Relax feature while Android phones have Bedtime mode, both of which turn off your phones at a time of your choosing.

Just a glance at that time. Many of us tap our phone screen to check the time in the middle of the night. It can tempt us to unlock our phones and browse. If you have followed the other steps listed here, you should be able to resist. You can also buy an alarm clock just for that purpose.

Create a technology family plan. Leaving your phone outside the bedroom may not be practical for many adults, but I recommend parents keep all devices out of their children’s bedrooms. Andrea Davis, founder of Better Screen Time, a company that educates families about healthy digital habits, suggests parents create a tech plan with their kids, explaining when, where and how devices can be used. She says that parents should also follow the rules. She didn’t trust her not to look at her phone while in bed, so she agreed, along with her children, to charge the phone in another room at night. Her husband keeps the phone in the bedroom in case of emergency.

Restart your sleep routine. If you still wake up in the middle of the night and find yourself ruminating, don’t keep tossing and turning, says Vijay Ramanan, a neurologist at the Mayo Clinic. He suggests getting up for 15 minutes and starting the routine that helped you fall asleep again. Just turn to your phone to find a calming meditation, audiobook or podcast.

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