Screens vs. sleep: a bedtime battle

By Katerina Misa

Katerina is the Editor-in-Chief of the Talon and a senior staff writer.

Posted: November 11, 2014

Are electronics the new monster under the bed? Why do they keep you from falling asleep?

Brush teeth, climb into bed, turn off the lights…turn on the phone.

Sound familiar? How about feeling tired in the morning? For many people, using their electronic devices is a major part of their nighttime routine. The use of electronics such as phones, laptops and television before bed may alter sleep patterns, which can affect mood, work or school performance and health. Many people are aware about the effects of electronic usage at night, so why do we continue to do it?

Ninety-five percent of people claim to use electronics in the hour before sleep and two thirds of these people claim they do not get enough sleep per week according to the Annual Sleep in America Poll in 2011 by the National Sleep Foundation. Getting enough sleep is extremely important for one’s health. Lack of sleep can even lead to serious health problems such as diabetes, heart disease, heart attack or stroke.

“One of the most important reasons technology affects sleep is because our brains are stimulated,” said psychology teacher Julie Johnson. “Even if you feel like you’ve checked out, the fact is your brain is being stimulated. When it’s time to go to sleep your brain needs to be able to calm down from your day and when you’re using technology, your mind is continually going.”

“As your brain revs up, its electrical activity increases and neurons start to race — the exact opposite of what should be happening before sleep,” said Dr. Mark Rosekind, former director of the Fatigue Countermeasures Program at the NASA Ames Research Center in WebMD Magazine.

Rosekind adds that the physical act of responding to a video game or an email makes your body tense.

“As you get stressed, your body can go into a ‘fight or flight’ response,” he said, “and as a result, cortisol, a stress hormone, is released, creating a situation hardly conducive to sleep.”

Electronic devices produce short wavelengths to create white light. These short wavelengths suppress melatonin, a sleep-promoting hormone that controls sleep and wake cycles. Suppression of this hormone increases alertness and increases the risk of cancer and weakening of the immune system.

“[Technology] can affect you getting to sleep, but it can also affect your quality of sleep,” said Johnson. “The glow from the electronics is working against you because the brain and the body are trained to start to go into that sleep mode when the room is dark, but when you have something glowing, your brain is not saying it’s time to go to bed. That light is enough to stimulate that part of your brain that controls your sleep activity. That part of your brain can’t settle down when you’re looking at light whether it’s natural light or light from technology.  It’s in a day time mode in your brain when it’s really nighttime, so it’s messing with the hormonal balance in the body.”

Many teenagers use their devices for schoolwork, social media, and entertainment shortly before going to sleep. Junior Hank Olson stated he uses an electronic device in the hour before going to bed – first for school, then Netflix.

“I don’t think it’s worth it to stop using them because I love Netflix,” said Olson. “I watch How I Met Your Mother, Parks and Recreation, Doctor Who and a lot more.”

Sophomores Emma Greenfield and Jose Williamson are also using their phones and iPads late at night.

“I always go on Twitter before bed,” said Greenfield. “It’s not just a habit, it’s a need.”

“My parents try to take away my phone before I go to sleep,” stated Williamson. “I have to fake sleep until they go to bed. Then I’m back on it.”

Johnson stated that teenagers today have a lot more distractions with social media.

“You as teenagers don’t see it as a distraction, because you grew up with it and it’s a part of your daily life,” she said. “From people I’ve heard from, once you’re done with your homework, getting on social media is like your free time or release or destresser. That makes sense to me. However, you’re not fully thinking, ‘well, this is going to affect my sleep.’ You’re trying to have some downtime before going to bed, but actually it’s working against you.”

Different parts of the brain are activated when reading on an e-reader versus a paperback book. The parts of the brain being activated when reading on an electronic device are at odds with the parts getting ready for sleep.

People often like to read before going to sleep, but with the increasing popularity in e-readers, many people are negatively affecting their sleep while doing an activity usually meant to be calming and relaxing.

“E-books are very convenient especially when I am trying to get my kids to sleep,” said science teacher Sam Meyers. “However, I definitely feel more of a strain on my eyes compared to a regular book.”

Meyers goes on to explain that even if he uses electronics before bed, he can still fall asleep very easily.

“I think it depends on the person,” said Meyers, “but I can see how it affects the quality of sleep. Sleep is extremely important so this is definitely a fight that needs to be fought.”

“If one has difficulty with sleep then it is best to read a paperback book,” said Dr. Salim Kathawalla, director of sleep medicine at Park Nicollet Health Services. “On the other hand, if there is no difficulty in falling asleep at an acceptable time then these electronic devices should be OK.”

There is no easy fix to the habit of using electronics before bed. Johnson explained that the best thing is making a goal and sticking to it. However, this is easier said than done.

“Start backward and say, ‘This is the time I want to be in bed with the lights off and this is what time I want to stop technology,'” she said.

“Power off your devices completely and put them away for the night, out of your bedroom even.  Often people don’t intentionally try to do this, but their phone will buzz at night and wake them up (and keep them up), or you’ll briefly wake up and check your phone… too tempting if they are on and right within reach in the same room!  Any checking you want to do can wait until the next day.”
With technology becoming more and more apart of our daily lives, we find it harder and harder to separate from them. However, sleep plays a key role in our health and is greatly affected by a few minutes of screen time. Parting from our devices at night may be easier said than done, but could be a crucial step in becoming less tired and more alert.

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