How Technology Is Killing Your Sleep

Modern technology has made our lives easier and more inter-connected. We now have smartphones and tablets that basically function as pocket-sized computers. The advent of Internet and software technologies, such as social media, online shopping, video-sharing and mobile applications have made smartphones a desirable, and almost mandatory commodity in present society.

Mobile technology has progressed to the point where it’s affordable and prevalent throughout the modern world - a unicorn scenario just 10 years ago.

  A full-sized computer's processing power in the palm of your hand. No wonder it's so hard to resist using these before bed!

A full-sized computer's processing power in the palm of your hand. No wonder it's so hard to resist using these before bed!

With that much information at our fingertips, it’s unsurprisingly hard to stay disconnected. After all, the entire internet is just a tap away, with the plethora of apps and games further keeping us in the loop. The world is 'smaller', life is more convenient thanks to technology. But what about the negative effects?

Sleep. It forms a third of our lives, leaves us refreshed to conquer the day ahead, and generally just feels great to indulge in. Of course, sleep goes far beyond making us feel good and fresh.

It is during these precious hours that our body works to repair, grow and build the immune, nervous, muscular and skeletal systems. Humans are naturally diurnal: we are active during the day and asleep at night.

  Sleep is one of the body's vital processes. During sleep, the body works to repair, grow and build the immune, nervous, muscular and skeletal systems.

Sleep is one of the body's vital processes. During sleep, the body works to repair, grow and build the immune, nervous, muscular and skeletal systems.

Our sleeping patterns are governed by our circadian clock – also known as the ‘body’ or ‘biological’ clock. Our circadian clocks dictate when we are active and when we asleep. This clock determines when we feel sleepy and when we don’t – it’s a pretty important part of our biology.

Sleep therefore plays a vital role in our well-being. Most people understand the importance of getting regular rest – at least 6 to 8 hours a night for adults and 9 to 12 hours for teenagers and young children. However, in today’s virtual reality, quality sleep can be hard to achieve.

The Causes

The hours leading up to bedtime are absolutely crucial – what you do then affects your quality of sleep the most.

  A visualisation of our natural biological clock. Note that ideally, melatonin secretion begins at 2100 hours, an hour or two before actual sleep. Using your devices during the secretion period supresses melatonin production, making falling asleep harder and more uncomfortable.

A visualisation of our natural biological clock. Note that ideally, melatonin secretion begins at 2100 hours, an hour or two before actual sleep. Using your devices during the secretion period supresses melatonin production, making falling asleep harder and more uncomfortable.

It is crucial to understand that light has the ability to affect your sleep most. Since the dawn of human existence, we have relied on the sun for much of our lighting. Of course, this meant that resting at night was imperative and natural. The advent of electricity and artificial lighting slowly but surely changed all that. 

Light, whether natural or artificial, has the power to interfere with our circadian rhythms. Light supresses melatonin, a hormone produced by the pineal gland that regulates your circadian rhythm and induces tiredness to help you sleep.

This makes sense from an evolutionary point of view, where the lack of light at night meant that we worked and hunted during the day and rested when it got dark. Hence, the presence of light leads to a more active mind – a ‘daytime’ state of sorts. Not the best condition you want to be in at bedtime.

A Case Of The Blues

If you love to catch a TV show or check your email before bedtime, you could be setting yourself up for a worse night’s sleep than usual.

Now, we know that light of any kind is stimulating to your brain and helps keep us awake, but there is one colour in the visible spectrum of light that affects our sleep the most.

Your mobile phones, tablets, computers, televisions and similar devices emit something called blue light – a spectrum also found in sunlight (along with UV waves). When you use these devices close to bedtime, the blue light emitted suppresses the production of melatonin, making it harder to fall asleep.

Blue light does this to greater effect than any other light across the visible spectrum, so it is recommended you use warm lighting in your bed room; dim yellow to range lights work best.

There are several ways to reduce or eliminate blue light before sleep. The simplest is to keep away from your electronics at least 30 minutes to an hour before bedtime, as much as possible.

The best way to do this is by simply leaving your electronic devices outside your bedroom – that includes your TV. If you simply have to continue using your devices, consider a blue light reducing software/app such as f.lux (for Windows/Mac, iOS), Twilight (for Android) or a physical blue light filter.

A Stimulant Like No Other

For a good night’s sleep, we need to be relaxed as much as possible. Technology can make this difficult. Remember the time you played your favourite video game till way past bed time, killing baddie after baddie, then realized afterwards that you couldn’t fall asleep as easily as usual?

That's because your mind was stimulated during gameplay.

The level of interaction matters here: An exciting video game will stimulate your mind more than simply texting your buddies on a messenger or surfing the web. The more involved and immersed you are when using your device, the harder it is to get to sleep-ready mode.

It’s also worth noting that blue light is still at play here, so do your best to avoid the double whammy of melatonin-supressing blue light and mentally stimulative technology. 

A Rude Awakening

Even after avoiding our electronic devices before bedtime, they can still disrupt sleep. Mobile phones are the biggest culprit in this instance. It is not uncommon to have your phone close by the bed, which leads to all sorts of issues.

The National Sleep Foundation in the US had his to say in their Annual Sleep In America Poll:

"Cell phones were sometimes a sleep disturbance. About in one in ten of generation Z'ers (9%) say that they are awakened after they go to bed every night or almost every night by a phone call, text message or email. About one in five of generation Y'ers (20%) and generation Z'ers (18%) say this happens at least a few nights a week."

  Late night phone calls, texts, emails and alarms, the arch enemy of a good night's sleep.

Late night phone calls, texts, emails and alarms, the arch enemy of a good night's sleep.

The message is clear on this one: Silence your phone before heading to bed and ensure all alarms are set to go off at the proper times. You certainly do not want your phone to kill your slumber.

Further, melatonin suppression at night has been associated, among others, with: Increasing the risk of type 2 diabetes, heart disease, high cholesterol levels, metabolic syndrome and obesity. This potent hormone doesn’t just regulate our sleep – it benefits our bodies on so many levels! Supressing it just seems like a bad idea all round.

Conclusion

Sleep is important, sleep is great, and sleep feels good. Why then do so many of us avoid making this vital process of our lives a priority when it's time for bed? Modern technology has penetrated our lifestyles in more ways than one. Take good heed to the suggestions made here, and don't be too surprised that you start enjoying your sleep more.