If you’re like me and apparently 90 percent of Americans, there’s a good chance you’re on the computer shortly before bed, and possibly in bed. My nighttime ritual includes several hours of reading in bed, either in dead tree or ebook format, and I usually check my tablet several times to keep up on breaking news and email. The stark glow of screens surrounds me shortly before I turn everything off and roll over to go to sleep –- and when I wake up, the first thing I do after jamming on my glasses is check my email.
I also happen to have really poor sleep patterns, and always have. I sometimes go several days without really sleeping and it’s common for me to lie awake for a while before falling asleep. I tend to jerk awake in a panic in the middle of the night a lot, and sometimes don’t get back to sleep before morning. When I have an episode of sleep paralysis, there's no way in HECK I'm going back to sleep. Occasionally I give up and take some zolpidem in the quest of a night of decent rest, because otherwise, my crankiness levels soar through the ceiling and we all know that’s a bad thing.
I’ve known for years that using electronic devices before bed is not really recommended, for a variety of reasons. I was aware that some researchers theorized the light could disrupt circadian rhythms, making it harder for the brain to go into nighty-night mode. Additionally, using electronic devices could be stimulating (in a neurological sense, you dirty dogs), which would make it difficult to settle down and drift off to sleep.
A lot of this seems like common sense, but researchers are increasingly backing it up with studies to show that yes, Shirley, using electronic devices at bedtime is really not a good call if you want to sleep well. Perhaps especially if you have a history, like some people, of not doing so well on the whole sleeping front to begin with.
Using a tablet for two hours before bedtime can drop your melatonin levels by 22 percent, which can have an effect on sleep, since the chemical is heavily involved in regulating the processes that help your brain mellow out and go the f&%! to sleep. Those findings have also been linked to laptop and desktop use1, so don’t think you can weasel out of them by lugging the old Macbook into bed instead of your iPad. Or whatever you’re using.
It’s a particular problem with kids, who experience the “wired and tired” phenomenon because their developing brains are more sensitive than our calcified adult ones. Even if kids get a full night of sleep, heavy electronic device use before bed can mean their sleep isn’t as restful. The visual and cognitive stimulation of electronic devices can put the body into fight or flight mode, which is very draining in the long term.
Given these findings, I really should be cutting back my electronic device use, especially in bed –- though actually, sleep hygiene recommendations advise against even reading a dead tree book in bed because even that can be stimulating, but you will pry my bedtime reading out of my cold, dead hands. But, functionally, I feel like I can’t; I live in a wired world and I work in a highly wired profession. Not checking my electronic devices means being a step behind other people in my industry, and that’s a bad thing.
I get important emails at 11:00 at night or even later and I need to respond to them. I get commissions at 3:00 AM and need to write back to let editors know I’ll take them, and that’s why I keep my tablet next to the bed; so that when I wake up in the middle of the night, I can quickly check my email to see what’s going on, and poke my head in on Twitter to see if there’s major breaking news that’s going to mess with my schedule the next day.
If I decided to limit electronic device usage to, say, between 7 AM and 7 PM, I’d be at a tremendous disadvantage when compared to other people in my field. I might be sleeping better and enjoying better health, but I also wouldn’t be able to work as effectively. On the weekends, I try to make more time off from my devices, but it’s not always possible, because you never know what’s going to happen and when; this is a rapidly changing world.
It’s a tradeoff a lot of people are forced to make, and it sucks. These study findings are really just confirming the obvious, but they’re also highlighting a growing social problem; a lot of adults are using electronic devices because they need to, and their ill health is the tradeoff they must make in order to stay employed and stay competitive with people in their field.
This is something that can’t be put back in the box; you can try to reform some aspects of work culture in the United States and around the world, but the issues driving people to constant electronic device use are bound up in the very nature of the digital age. People have to use these devices because of the instant connectivity and rapid spread of information, so they can stay abreast of developments. And because they use them, they contribute to the cycle, thus locking themselves in to the very system that is making them sick.
It’s a horrible double bind, and raises some important questions about worker health and welfare in the digital age. Creative professionals and office workers are prone not just to sleep problems and the health issues associated with poor sleep problems, but also wrist and hand injuries, poor vision, and other complications related to using computers far too much, along with problems associated with sitting for prolonged periods of time. Using electronic devices in bed is only the tip of the iceberg.
These studies certainly highlight the fact that people who use electronic devices in bed should definitely think about why they do, and whether it's possible to cut back or stop altogether. And for some of us, they're just a frustrating reminder of the fact that our livelihoods sometimes aren't all that great for us.
1. Though there is some hope in this regard; F.lux is a program that subtly adjusts the color of computer screens, iPhones, and iPads to match the time of day, which addresses some of the concerns about late-night electronic device usage. Return