Updated: March 1, 2020
Most people have poor sleep hygiene, and one of the most common issues is the misuse of technology. The Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine (JCSM) published a 2011 poll conducted by the National Sleep Foundation that showed that 90% of Americans report using technology an hour before bed. The JCSM also reported that technology use is associated with sleep problems. The more types of devices used, the more problems were reported getting to sleep and staying asleep. 22% reported falling asleep with the ringers on, and 10% reported being woken up at least a few nights per week because of their cell phone.
According to a 2017 study from Penn State that looked at several different studies, television and/or cell phone use at bedtime is associated with a decrease in the amount and quality of sleep in children and adolescents. These children were more likely to be tired in the morning and less likely to eat breakfast, which are risk factors for elevated body mass index (BMI).
We're going to cover the ways that technology could be hurting your sleep: light, sound, stimulation and stress, and a controversial topic—electromagnetic frequencies, as well as a few ways that it can help you.
Addiction to Technology
Addiction to social media and technology reduces the amount of time sleeping. This addiction can take many forms, or a combination of forms, including video game addiction, addiction to social media, TV addiction. Social media giants such as Facebook have become very good at getting people pulled into using their platform and staying on it. Addiction centers like the Ford Clinic now offer help for technology addiction.
The nonprofit group Common Sense Media has found that U.S. teens average 9 hours/day with digital media, tweens 6 hours/day, ages zero to 8 spend 2.5 hours/day, and the Nielsen Company found that adults spend more than 11 hours/day.
Research from the University of Pittsburgh's Brain Group found higher rates of anxiety and depression in young adults who engage in many social media platforms compared to those who only do two. Sleep and anxiety are common causes of anxiety.
If you feel that your use of technology is negatively affecting your life, start limiting the amount of time that you use technology per session and the total amount per day. If you're having a hard time doing that, you may want to seek professional help.
Here are several things you can do to reduce your dependence on technology:
- Talk to people in person whenever possible, and if not possible, over the phone as opposed to digital messaging.
- Silence notifications on your phone.
- Take breaks where you leave your phone or other tech in other rooms or on airplane mode.
- Find hobbies that you find interesting and fill your time.
- Download an app such as Space that tracks the amount of time that you've used technology and when you go over the self-imposed limit, your phone will lock for a specific amount of time.
- The Center for Humane Technology suggests changing the color setting on your phone to grey. The human brain is interested in all of the bright colors that we see on our cell phones, and setting your phone to a grey color can help your digital detox.
Blue light part of the electromagnetic spectrum of visible light and is emitted by laptops, televisions, cell phones, tablets, fluorescent and LED lights, as well as the sun. Blue light has a very short wavelength and produces a higher amount of energy. Blue light boosts awareness, mood, heightens reaction times, increases a feeling of well being, and suppresses melatonin (the sleep hormone). Exposure to blue light in the morning and afternoon is good because your circadian rhythm is set by light and by heat, but exposure to blue light tells your brain that it's early and it should be awake.
Many people's evening routines involve watching TV, looking at their cell phones, and may also include the use of a tablet, all while sitting in a well-lit room. If it takes you a long time to get to sleep once you're in bed, it may be because you've been exposing your brain to blue light that's telling it that it's not time to sleep.
- Make sure your devices have blue light filters that stop using blue light within a few hours of bed. Your cell phone may have a blue light filter that automatically filters out blue light as it gets darker, giving your screen more of a yellow color. If you don't have this function, download a blue light filter in your app store for your computer, phone, and tablet.
- At least one hour before you go to bed, start dimming lights in your house. If you watch TV, watch it earlier at night and read a book or engage in an activity that doesn't involve blue light. If you have blue light filters on your phone, tablet, or computer, watch your shows on those devices.
- Install a dimmer switch in your bathroom or start using a hallway light to brush your teeth.
- Reduce your light exposure from other sources in your room including your TV (which will often have a light on even when it's turned off), smoke detector, carbon monoxide detector, and any other technology that emits light. Also, make sure that you're not getting light from outside. If so, install room-darkening shades or drapes.
Notifications from your phone, the sound of your laptop fan going on, and any other sounds that happen throughout the night may be disturbing your sleep. When you're in deeper stages of sleep you won't hear sounds, but in the lighter phases, sounds can wake you up or disturb your sleep.
It's good to have a nightly ritual before you sleep, and turning off all electronics every night can be a signal to your brain that it's time to sleep, and to make sure that you don't forget and get woken up by sounds from your devices.
It's also a good idea to soundproof your room as much as possible. You don't need to spend a lot of time and money doing this, such as installing sound absorbing foam panels in your bedroom (like you'd see in a sound studio). Some simple things you can do could include using sound absorbing drapes, putting a rug on your floor, a few plants, and some art or decorations on the wall. Anything that will absorb or deflect sound will reduce the echo effect in a room.
Stress and Overstimulation
Reading before bed can be a great way to relax. Some sleep experts recommend fiction as you may reading nonfiction may cause your brain to go into an active mode. If you're reading about work or business, you may start setting goals, planning, and thinking, and it may be hard to turn your brain off when you lay down.
Another common error is to work before bed. You may feel that you're getting ahead, or catching up, but the lack of sleep may cause you to be less productive the next day. Responding to emails and doing anything work related may cause you stress and it can be hard to let go of when you lay down.
Social media is different for everyone. If you look at social media and it relaxes you, you can keep it as part of your nightly routine (as long as you're using a blue light filter). If it causes you stress, try not looking at it before you go to bed and notice if you fell asleep faster or had a more restful sleep. If you're not sure, keep a sleep journal and notice if there's a difference in your sleep on the days you look at it before bed compared to the days you don't.
Electromagnetic Frequencies (EMFs)
Electric and magnetic fields are invisible areas of energy, also referred to as radiation. There are both natural and man made EMFs, as well as low-level (non-ionizing) and high-level (ionizing). Low-level radiation comes from cell phones, microwaves, Wi-Fi routers, radio signals, TV signals, and wireless telecommunications, as well as power lines. High-level EMFs come from the sun (ultraviolet rays) and medical imaging machines. Ionization is a process where electrons are stripped away from their normal locations in atoms and molecules causing damage to tissues.
Are EMFs from low-level radiating machines (such as your cell phone) dangerous? Cell phones emit low levels of radiofrequency energy (RF) while being used, and even less when not being used. High levels of RF does heat tissue, but according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), low-level RF doesn't heat tissues.
The amount of RF energy absorbed into the user's body is called the specific absorption rate (SAR). Cell phone manufacturers are required to publish the SAR of their phones. In the U.S., the maximum SAR is 1.6 watts per kilogram (W/kg) of body weight.
The World Health Organization's International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classifies EMFs as a possible carcinogen to humans. The AIRC Monograph Working Group discussed the possibilities of long-term health effects, especially cancer, which has relevance for users of cell phones, especially young adults and children.
There are studies on low-level radiation causing neurological and psychiatric problems in people. One study from Switzerland concluded that cell phone use before bed affected sleep. Another study found that the effects didn't reach "statistical significance." As there's no clear answer, what should you do?
As it's possible that everyone responds differently to cell phone radiation and that some people may be more sensitive than others, you may want to track your sleep quality when you use your cell phone a lot during the day as well as if you keep it on at night near your bed. Compare your sleep to when you didn't use your cell during the day as much, and when you kept it far from your bed or in airplane mode.
There are also many factors that vary from person to person, such as how often you use your cell phone, laptop, and/or tablet, the strength of the signal, the type of phone, etc.
If you decide that until more conclusive studies are done that you're not going to take a risk, here are some things you can do to reduce your EMF exposure during the day and at night:
- Don't keep your cell phone close to you all of the time.
- Use an EMF-blocking cell phone case or diode that will reduce your exposure. The EMF Academy has a great list of cases that they recommend, as well as tips for reducing radiation exposure.
- Don't put your laptop on your lap. There have been some studies linking EMF exposure to lower fertility rates, such as this 2014 study that found a reduced sperm count in males. If you do, use an EMF radiation shield.
- Keep your cell in airplane mode while you sleep.
- Use headphones and/or speaker mode when talking on the phone.
- Keep your laptop and other electronics away from your bed at night.
- Don't use your cell phone when you have only 1 bar, or use a speakerphone or a headset. The worse reception you have, the more power needed to maintain a connection, and the more radiation.
- Wait for a second or two to answer your phone. Cell phones are known to emit a burst of radiation when trying to connect to a cell phone tower.
How Technology Can Help You
Most of this article is about how technology can hurt your sleep because the human body is sensitive in many ways, and technology often works against our natural rhythms. There are a few ways that technology can help you sleep better.
You could have a pen and paper journal to track your sleep, but a sleep app will do all of the math for you in calculating sleep trends, and a sleep app can track your sleep cycles. My favorite is Sleep Cycle for the following reasons:
- It will track your sleep through motion or your phone's microphone and give you a graph of what stage of sleep you were in at what time. It will also track how often and for how long you snored (with a recording), and how long it took you to get to sleep.
- You can add "sleep notes" to track what things are influencing your sleep. For example, you could track the days that you exercised to see if it helped or hurt your sleep.
- It has two wake up functions. One is for an exact time, the other will wake you up when you're in a lighter phase of sleep.
- It works on airplane mode so you don't have to worry about EMF exposure or having to leave your phone on and getting audible and visual notifications throughout the night.
If you're in a noisy area and noise makes it difficult for you to fall asleep or stay asleep, gentle background noise may help. Some people use a fan at low speed, but if that's not an option for you, many free white noise apps that will help drown out background noise.
Mattress Cooling Machines
The famous biohacker Tim Ferriss listed the ChiliPad as one of the top 5 things he uses to help him sleep better (check out our review here). They're not cheap ($400-$600), but it can be cheaper than buying a new mattress that's cooler. Or if you're like me and need a really soft mattress for your back, but foam mattresses retain heat too much, the ChiliPad or some other mattress cooler is a great investment.
These machines circulate water through a pad that you put on top of your mattress, and you control the water temperature.