Science of Sleep Graphic | Studies of Rest and Technology

SCIENCE | Science of Sleep

Sleeping with Technology | A quick lesson on the studies of rest and technology

Jem Joven Contributing Writer

by Jem Joven
Published November 2013 | The Night Issue

We love our devices; we can’t imagine life without them. With advances in technology rushing in, connectedness has never meant more or done more for the average user. Unfortunately, this constant connection has its pitfalls, particularly when it comes to sleep. Like eating and exercising, sleep is an essential life function, and insufficient sleep has been linked* to everything from obesity and heart disease to poor memory.

The National Sleep Foundation’s 2011 survey estimated that four in 10 Americans and three in four teenagers bring their mobile phones to bed. More telling, 44 percent of those surveyed in the 2012 Time Mobility Poll—which spans Brazil, USA, the UK, China, and India, to name a few—said mobile phones are the last thing they see at night and the first thing they reach for in the morning, and at least 20 percent of them have been awakened sometime during the night by text messages, alerts, or notifications. But does the use of a mobile phone before bed really affect sleep? Let’s examine it more closely. A 2012 study on Canadian children studied the effects of sleep, electronics, and weight. When Alberta parents were asked what kinds of electronic media are available to their children and how often the children use these at bedtime, researchers found that children who used electronic media at night weighed more, exercised less, ate a poorer diet, and slept less (Chahal et al., 2012). The study’s authors hypothesized that media use substituted for physical activity, which led to obesity.

Adding credibility to these findings was a study about adolescents printed in American Academy of Pediatrics, which found that 12- to 18-year-olds who used media at bedtime were more likely to stay up later, sleep less, and consume more caffeinated beverages. These adolescents tended to use multiple forms of technology (from television to computers to mobile phones) and consume more caffeine despite strong physiological drive to sleep (Calamaro et al., 2009). Norwegian adults were studied in 2010 to similar results. Adults who used their mobile phones in the bedroom at night were more likely to stay up later, get less sleep on weekends because of it, and sleep in on the weekends to make up for it (Brunborg et al., 2010).

So what is it about technology that seemingly keeps us up at night? Beyond the excitement and entertainment we receive from funny YouTube videos or engaging blogs, scientists have theorized that technology use at bedtime has a direct effect on our sleepiness. Mobile phones’ bright little screens emit just enough lumens to delay our melatonin production (Higuchi et al., 2005).

Melatonin is a chemical our bodies release to signal sleepiness, but it needs darkness for excretion; bright lights from televisions and mobile phones emit just enough light to delay its production. Less melatonin means less sleep, and, sadly, we feel the effects the next day. Can we simply ingest melatonin and continue as we are with our almost umbilical dedication to our mobile devices? Certainly, but it’s a far more complicated problem than just lack of melatonin. For starters, the synthetic melatonin that you’d get from your local grocer may or may not actually contain melatonin; melatonin supplements are not regulated by the FDA for effectiveness or purity.

Additionally, melatonin is only part of the problem. The Norwegian study found that adults who used media in their bedrooms developed poor sleep habits, and higher technology use went so far as to contribute to poor hygiene. So what now? As previously mentioned, sleep is essential to our well-being. Like not texting while driving, we need to seriously consider not taking the phone to bed with us. If we absolutely must go to bed with our phones, then perhaps we should consider the emerging and informative sleep apps that are now on the market. Quantified health technology is an emerging field with sleep study at the forefront, so hopefully we’ll find some answers and, eventually, a good night’s sleep.

SLEEP FACTS

Over 63% of tablet owners sleep with their iPad. It is the last thing they see before bed and the first thing they reach for in the morning.
REM sleep occurs in bursts at a total of about two hours per night. The majority of REM sleep happens 90 minutes after falling asleep.
Snoring only occurs in non-REM sleep.
Women who sleep fewer than five hours per night have more significant weight gain over time than those who sleep for seven hours per night.

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