In her recent book, Reclaiming Conversation, Dr. Sherry Turkle, the Abby Rockefeller Mauze Professor of Social Studies of Science and Technology at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), argues convincingly that technology is replacing our natural ability to connect with one another through everyday face-to-face conversation. Rather than looking someone in the eyes and asking about his or her day, we turn to our phones, and in the process, we are losing out on conversation, which is, as Turkle calls it, “the most human—and humanizing—thing we do.” The arguments for putting away your smart phone and turning off your other screens to improve the quality of your interpersonal relationships are very strong.
As a sleep researcher, I want to build on the case that Turkle makes and emphasize that reducing technology in our lives (especially at bedtime) also benefits your sleep in both quantity and quality. In previous posts, I have described the wide-ranging benefits of sufficient high-quality sleep on physical health, emotional health, cognitive functioning, and public safety. In this post, I describe the reasons screen time adversely affects sleep and offer some tips to reduce an over-reliance on screens in your household.
Why Screens Are Bad for Your Sleep
The research on screen time and sleep is pretty consistent. In study after study, evidence shows that people of all ages who engage in regular screen time activity (e.g., watching television, surfing the internet, staring at one’s smart phone, or playing video games) go to bed later, have more trouble falling asleep, and have shorter overall total sleep time.
There are three basic mechanisms through which screens adversely impact sleep.
- Time displacement. Watching, using, or playing a game on a screen is a fairly engaging process that often consumes many hours of time each day. All of this time spent looking at a screen sucks time away from the hours you could be sleeping. For example, if you start watching a movie at 10 PM, you won’t be able to fall asleep until close to midnight at the earliest. If you don’t allow yourself that late-night screen time, you might instead fall asleep a lot earlier, or you might use that time in another meaningful way.
- Emotional and psychological stimulation. One of the reasons screen time is so enticing is that the content is frequently emotionally stimulating, and that might make it harder for you to get high-quality sleep. In the hour or so before bed, you should be winding down and doing relaxing things, not watching scary or violent content. Even positive and exciting content can make it more difficult to sleep.
- Physiologically alerting effects of light. Light emitted from the devices affects circadian timing, sleep physiology, and alertness. By exposing yourself to a device that shines a light directly at you, you are reducing your body’s physiological ability to drift easily into sleep.
Tips for Reducing Evening Screen Time
- Take a step back and evaluate your screen routine. Do an assessment of a typical day in your life. Ask yourself whether you need screens on at various points throughout the day.
- If you typically check your smart phone before bed or in the middle of the night, don’t recharge it in your bedroom. If you recharge your phone in the kitchen, you won’t know if you got a text from your best friend at 1 AM.
- Talk with your family and friends about your efforts to cut back on unnecessary screen time. Don’t let each other pull screens out at the dinner table. Instead, use that time to look at each other and talk. This is especially important if you have children in your life. You should aspire to be a role model for children about how to interact with one another.
- Identify what screen-based entertainment you really want in your life. It’s okay to watch a little television but be selective about it. Don’t just turn the TV on to scan the channels, especially from the comfort of your bed.
Look up, talk to people, and sleep well
By now, I hope you are motivated to increase the quality of your face-to-face conversations and improve your sleep at the same time. By giving your screens a break, you might find that you are looking up more, appreciating what’s going on in your environment, and having better conversations with your loved ones. And, on top of that, you’ll be feeling better, because you’ll have finally gotten the nourishing restorative high-quality sleep that you are due.
Our Sleep Health expert Lauren Hale, PhD is an associate professor of Preventive Medicine and core faculty member of the program in Public Health at Stony Brook University. She specializes in the effects sleep has on mental, physical, and public health. Laurens's articles for the BoomSpot, the blog of the online store theBoomShop.com, shed light on the significance of sleep and the role it plays in personal wellbeing. Lauren presented a TEDx talk at Stony Brook University on her research agenda on the social patterning of sleep health. In 2015, she became the Editor-in-Chief of the academic journal, Sleep Health.