Are you someone who always watches television or uses their phone before bed? Studies say you most likely are. According to a National Sleep Foundation poll in 2011, 60% of Americans watch TV right before falling asleep. Another study finds 60-70% use a mobile device within a half-hour of going to bed. Many even claim to use it because they believe it helps them fall asleep. If so many people do this, is it because using electronics before bed facilitates a full and restful sleep? Well, not exactly. Using devices that produce light close to the time you sleep is proven to be harmful and lead to a lack of quality sleep. Watching television and using electronics within 30 minutes of sleep throws off your internal clock, sleep schedule, and the amount of restful sleep you get each night. The graphic below shows how common it is to use a mobile device before sleep, in the middle of the night, and right after waking up:
So How Does Using Electronics Before Bed Affect Sleep Quality?
Blue light is a high-intensity light within the visible spectrum. While light of any kind can suppress the secretion of melatonin, blue light at night does so more powerfully, nearly twice as much as other wavelengths. Blue light happens to be beneficial during daylight hours because it boosts attention, reaction time, and mood. However, the sun is our natural source of light. With electronic devices being so prominent in the lives of our digital age, we are exposed to light much more often than biologically intended. Light plays a much-needed function in our Circadian Rhythm, also known as our internal clock. When you get tired, it is because your internal clock has sensed it is time to sleep and has released chemicals that signal your body to wind down. Exposure to light is what regulates this Circadian Rhythm, and the absence of light triggers the pineal gland to release melatonin during the biological night. Too much exposure to blue light can damage light-sensitive cells in the retina, leading to long-lasting sleep problems. These problems can include daytime sleepiness and trouble falling asleep. On a short-term scale, if biological night cues rely on the absence of light, then exposure to light sources other than the sun will fail to trigger this response and keep you up late. Yet when combined with the reason behind your nightly electronic use, this too can become an endless cycle of insomnia-like symptoms.
Why You Feel Like You “Need” Television or Mobile Devices
Many people insist they need the TV on to fall asleep at night, to the point where couples sleep in separate rooms so that one can keep the TV running. Today, smartphones have the same capabilities as television, allowing you to stream videos to fall asleep watching. While that is great for streaming meditation soundtracks, the majority do not use the feature this way. Instead, the television is brought right into the bed with you on mobile devices. Except this “television” also allows you to check addictive social media notifications and converts reading- a typically beneficial sleep habit- into another source of blue light before sleep. The addictive qualities of social media are widely known, and you can read more about that in a Psychology article by Dr. Mark Griffiths here, but what about television? Why do so many feel the need to watch something to be able to fall asleep?
Television tricks the mind into thinking it is helping sleep when it’s the very thing that makes falling asleep difficult. Television provides a similar effect to white noise machines by producing a constant sound at a steady volume. Sound at a consistent volume, which is not too loud, can help people fall asleep because it can drown out racing thoughts. Racing thoughts are caused by different factors, including life stressors or chronic conditions, and are especially common when people do not get enough sleep. One condition that causes racing thoughts is a sleep disorder like Insomnia, where hyperactivity is a symptom. Watching media to solve racing thoughts may lead to a dangerous cycle. If you consume media through a screen because your brain is hyperactive, your brain will lack restful sleep and be hyperactive the next night too. Here rests why people so often think they need the TV to help them sleep, and then falling asleep with it on becomes a hard-to-break habit. Not only do people use devices to watch shows and videos for the white noise factor, but they also use them for social media and to check notifications. Some media leads to brain stimulation before bed, another habit that delays the sleep response. So does reliance on phones for reminders and setting morning alarms with your smartphone can be a source of light exposure. Even reading articles on devices provides a false sense of a healthy habit, because books are known to help people sleep well— when not producing extra light. There are so many ways for people to use their devices before bed, and with the culture-supported dependence on electronic media, it can be inconvenient to retrain behavior to avoid nighttime light exposure and sleep better.
Ways You Can Reduce Light Exposure Before Bed
- Night Modes, Dark Modes, and Lowered Brightness. While these methods lower the amount of overall light or blue light to make sleep come easier and lessen the strain on your eyes, there are still cons to this method. Device modes may not affect the brightness levels in certain apps, there have been studies suggesting the yellow color of Night Mode is more akin to sunlight and still throws off your internal clock, and even with these modes you are still stimulating brain activity which delays the natural winddown before sleep.
- Blue Light Glasses are a more recent product that claims to reduce the blue light, decreasing eye strain and leading to improved sleep. These are a relatively new product, and not much research has been done to prove or disprove whether they are effective. They are also not FDA regulated since they are technically sold as a non-medical product. The main discourse against this product is the cost. These lenses can be up to $140, and that is a lot of money to spend on a device that is not proven to work when you can just limit your exposure for free.
- Alternative healthy sleep habits to replace light-producing devices. If you find it difficult to stop consuming media before bed and want to calm your thoughts to wind down, using an actual white noise machine or reading physical copies of books could help you move away from your current routine. These methods are not guaranteed to help your sleep, however, they only cost around $20 and could be worth a try.
- If you prefer to be less dependent on consuming media to fall asleep better, or you feel you are not someone who struggles with racing thoughts before bed, our recommended way to reduce excess light exposure is to just stop using these devices close to bedtime. Setting a scheduled time to put down mobile devices and shut off the television is the most effective way to fall asleep naturally. It may take some adjusting, but gradually quitting devices at earlier times can help. The goal is to start this wind-down two hours before sleep. For some, this may seem impossible, so one hour may be a more achievable goal that is still healthy.
What If You Still Cannot Get Enough Quality Sleep?
If you find that limiting exposure to light before bed does not help the quality of your sleep, or that you continue to struggle to fall asleep due to your racing thoughts and other facts, you should seek medical advice from a healthcare professional. Experiencing other sleep disorder symptoms such as snoring, gasping in your sleep, trouble staying asleep, frequent urination at night, waking from vivid dreams or nightmares, or other odd sleep behaviors then you might need a sleep study. A sleep study can rule out sleep disorders like Obstructive Sleep Apnea and Insomnia. Advantage Sleep Centers has three locations across South Jersey where we conduct sleep studies to rule out sleep disorders and can set up patients with treatments if they do have a disorder. Racing thoughts, as aforementioned, are often related to hyperactivity and Insomnia. CBT-I is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Insomnia, a treatment provided at our centers, and is the recommended treatment for people diagnosed with insomnia. CBT-I is a program for those serious about adjusting their bad sleep behaviors, such as light exposure, in order to learn healthy behaviors that can help you fall and stay asleep. While it requires clients to be highly involved in the treatment, because they have to keep track of and actively adjust their habits to eventually see change, it is effective in getting back to a natural, healthy sleep schedule. If you have trouble with quitting bedtime behaviors like watching television, seeking professional help for your sleep problems is the best solution.