Life Wellbeing What does screen time do to our sleep? Experts tell all

What does screen time do to our sleep? Experts tell all

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We spend hours every day staring at them, but experts argue not enough of us consider what screens are doing to our sleep.

Earlier this year, founder of the Huffington Post, Ariana Huffington, penned a landmark book titled The Sleep Revolution in which she lamented society’s view of sleep as “wasted time”.

According to Dr Maree Barnes, sleep doctor and President of the Australasian Sleep Association, using our phones, laptops and tablets before bed is about more than pesky blue light.

She said teenagers especially suffered from screen-induced sleep problems – linked to anxiety and a “fear of missing out”.

Teens glued to their phones could be compromising quality of sleep. Photo: Getty
Teens glued to their phones could be compromising quality of sleep. Photo: Getty

Kids increasingly glued to screens

According to a national longitudinal study from the Australian Institute of Family Studies, children are spending more time glued to their devices as they get older.

Kids aged between four and five years are spending around 2.2 hours each weekday watching screens, but that number grows to 3.3 hours by the time they are 12 and 13.

Dr Barnes, who also works at the Institute for Breathing and Sleep, said it wasn’t unusual for teenagers to wake in the middle of the night to check their social media accounts, even just to “check what people are posting”.

The same goes for adults who wake up at 2am and decide to check their email.

“They send a message to their pineal gland that it’s the morning,” she said.

“Then of course they find it hard to get back to sleep again.”

And in case you’re wondering about blue light-reducing software such as f.lux, Dr Barnes said you’re better off picking up a book.

Blue light

Our screens emit a particular frequency that mimics sunlight – and for sleep, that’s a problem.

As night falls, our body emits the hormone melatonin, which helps us go to sleep and stay asleep.

“Melatonin rises in the evening and also around 3pm, which is why we often feel like we’re having a slump around then,” Dr Barnes said.

“Sunlight suppresses melatonin and so does blue light.”

Phone light emulates sunlight – but at the wrong times. Photo: Getty
Phone light emulates sunlight – but at the wrong times. Photo: Getty

Messing with your melatonin can also affect your sleep cycle.

When we sleep, we go through roughly 90-minute phases, including REM sleep (when we dream and process short term information) and slow wave sleep, which helps us to wake up feeling refreshed.

Those who let blue light affect their natural melatonin cycle can wake up feeling drowsy and under-slept, Dr Barnes explained.

For that reason, the Australasian Sleep Association recommends winding down by ditching the screens for at least an hour before bed time.

All you need in your bedroom is your bed – according to Dr Barnes. Photo: Getty
All you need in your bedroom is your bed – according to Dr Barnes. Photo: Getty

And, as hard as it may seem: no phones in the bedroom.

“Bedrooms are for sleeping,” she said.

It’s not just the screen

Dr Barnes argued it wasn’t just blue light keeping people awake, but the mentally stimulating content they were looking at.

“The reason you’re staring at a screen, usually, is because you’re interested in what you’re looking at,” she said.

“You’re turning on your curiosity – and that will keep you awake.”

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