How Screens Affect Sleep

Words by
Stephen Dalby

SEP 25, 2020

How Screens Affect Sleep

What’s your favorite way to wind down before bed? A good book? A cup of chamomile tea? There’s no wrong answer, save for one: staring at a screen. Tempting as it is to check Twitter one more time, using your phone before bed can harm your sleep and, over time, your health. In this article, we will discuss how screens affect sleep.

How Screens Affect Sleep

What could be wrong with a little late-night scrolling? Experts point to three problems, all of which apply to adults as well as kids:

Mental Stimulation

Apps are designed to keep you engaged for as long as possible. Gamification tempts you to play just one more match. Content algorithms show you stories likely to rile you up. 

The trouble is, you don’t need to beat one more level or read one more story before bed. What you really need is to take control of your sleep schedule.

Suppression of Melatonin

Before artificial lighting, people went to bed when the sun went down. Why? Aside from the fact they couldn’t see what they were doing, it’s because a hormone told them to.

Darkness signals the pineal gland to release melatonin, which makes you feel sleepy. Putting a light in front of your face—say, a phone screen—tricks your body into thinking it’s daytime, causing melatonin levels to drop. Even if you’re exhausted, you’ll need more time to fall asleep with less melatonin in your system. 

Delayed or Disrupted REM Sleep

Once you manage to fall asleep after staring at your phone, the damage isn’t done: Your brain may take longer to enter into its REM phase, and even after it has, your REM cycles might be shorter or less frequent. 

Although the role of REM sleep isn’t fully understood, it’s thought to be your brain’s time to eliminate toxins and manage memories. If you don’t get enough of it, you may feel irritable or struggle to concentrate the next day. 

Over time, getting too little sleep takes a toll. Chronic sleep deprivation is associated with all sorts of health problems, including depression, dementia, obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and even certain cancers. 

Changing Bad Screen Habits

Just like other bad habits, screens can be addictive. Even if you know the risks, you might struggle to stop using your phone before bed.

The solution? Setting a few house rules. As a family, commit to:

Put devices down at least an hour before bedtime.

Once you stop looking at a screen, your body doesn’t immediately return to normal. Rebalancing hormone levels and quieting the mind take time. 

The National Sleep Foundation recommends you get at least half an hour of gadget-free time before bed. Make it at least an hour to give yourself some buffer.

Keep in mind, “devices” means more than just your smartphone. Avoid televisions, computer monitors, tablets, and anything else with a screen before you hit the hay.

Keep devices out of the bedroom.

Don’t tempt yourself; bringing your phone to bed—even if you only plan to use it as an alarm—isn’t a good idea. How many times have you instinctively reached for your phone because it buzzed?

If you don’t have a real alarm clock, get one. Ideally, choose a model without a digital display. The less artificial light in your bedroom, the better. 

Turn devices off.

Even if your phone is in another room, you can probably hear it in an otherwise silent house. Don’t just turn it down; turn it off. Otherwise, you’ll be tempted to get up to see what the noise was about.

The one exception? If your son or daughter is on the road late at night. Otherwise, any call, text, or Facebook notification can wait until the next morning. 

Hold each other accountable.

All the family guidelines in the world don’t mean anything if you don’t follow them. Commit to holding not just yourself accountable, but also the other members of your household. 

You know how easy it is to say, “Just five more minutes.” Others in your family probably do, too. If someone is breaking the rules, gently remind them that it’s time to go to bed. 

Unless it’s a persistent problem, resist the urge to take devices away. Doing so encourages your kids to hide their tech use from you (and after you’ve gone to bed is an easy time to cheat).

Researchers are just beginning to understand the how screens affect sleep. Already, however, it’s clear that screens delay and decrease the quality of sleep. And for a lot of reasons, sleep deprivation is a dangerous path. 

Be an example for your family. Remember, kids model what they see their parents do: If you bend the rules, then so will they. Take a hard line on screens at night, and see just how much brighter your next day can be.


  • lina on Jan 03, 2023 08:38 AM

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  • rama on Jan 23, 2023 11:23 PM

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