For A Good Night’s Sleep, Leave Your Cell Phone In The Hall

man sleeping on plane with mask

The modern conundrum: you wake in the middle of the night and grab your smartphone to check the time (3 a.m.). Then you see an alert. An email. And a tweet. Sleep? Out the window. What to do, unless you aim to become a professional insomniac? Banish your smartphone and buy an old-fashioned alarm clock, advises The New York Times in a recent article. Sure, you can change your phone to quiet mode. But the seduction to peruse messages in the early hours is mighty powerful. And according to sleep researchers, this isn’t good for you.

“It’s a very slippery slope, once you’ve picked up your phone, to see what time it is, to checking your email, to lying awake with anxiety,” Dr. David M. Claman, director of the Sleep Disorders Center at the University of California San Francisco Medical Center, told The Times. “If you wake up in the middle of the night and check your phone, you will inevitably get frustrated and worried by something you’ve seen, leading your body to tense up.” This leads to tossing and turning, thinking about an email, remembering a text or worrying about a meeting in six hours.

Dr. Claman stated that smartphones in the bedroom have led to a rise in sleep-related complaints from his patients. “For people I see in their 20s and 30s, the phone is becoming a more common contributing factor to insomnia,” he said.

More and more studies are finding a link between phones and insomnia

Some large, long-term studies on sleep disorders in the United Kingdom and Finland have found that stress-related issues have led to a rise in insomnia over the last decade. In the United States, according to the National Center on Sleep Disorders Research at the National Institutes of Health, as many as 40% of Americans suffer from insomnia in a given year, and 10-15% have chronic insomnia.

All of these sleep interruptions lead to work problems, the Times article reports. A 2011 study by the American Academy of Sleep Medicine found that insomnia costs $2,280 in lost productivity per American worker every year. That adds up to $63 billion a year.

The draw of the smartphone is understandable, and the alarm clock is a free feature. Many Americans like it, and they increasingly have brought their smartphones into their bedrooms. In fact, a 2013 Facebook-sponsored study by IDC Research found that 44% of people who own a smartphone use it as an alarm clock. That number rises to 54% for people 18 to 24.

This goes against years of research showing that screens, in any capacity, do everything but help us fall asleep. In 2012, the American Medical Association’s Council on Science and Public Health said that “exposure to excessive light at night, including extended use of various electronic media, can disrupt sleep or exacerbate sleep disorders.”

More tablet time before bed equals less sleep, especially for teens

Sleep researchers say that looking at a blue light, which is produced by smartphone and tablet screens, sets off brain receptors that are designed to keep us awake and interferes with circadian sleep patterns. Experimental research has found that if people use a tablet for up to two hours before bed, it takes an extra hour to fall asleep.

Orfeu M. Buxton, a neuroscientist and assistant professor in the division of sleep medicine at Harvard Medical School, said having a phone in the bedroom could set off what he called “threat vigilance,” which is a type of anxiety that keeps you awake. “This means that you’re never off, you’re always watchful, which is a hallmark to insomnia,” he said.

Unfortunately, teens fare the worst. Some children in middle school not only bring their phone into the bedroom but also leave the ringer on. “I have found that 10-15% of teens in middle school are hardened insomniacs who not only sleep with their cellphones on but feel they have to respond if it rings, in case a friend is in need,” Mr. Buxton stated.

Word to the wise: go retro and get an alarm clock. And leave your cell phone in the hall.

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