How Smartphones Sabotage Sleep: The Danger of Phones Before Bed

Mar 20, 2024

Smartphones: The Ultimate Bedtime Bully

Ever stayed up WAY past your bedtime and spent hours floating aimlessly around in cyberspace for no apparent reason?

YouTube, Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat, TikTok, Twitter (sorry: ‘X’. . .) — the options are endless. 

Smartphones are certainly alluring — addicting would be a better word. 

And it’s no surprise, because they’re purposefully designed that way

The engineers behind the apps, games and platforms we use expertly tap into the very same neural circuitry used by slot machines, sex and cocaine.

These short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops make us crave for just that little bit more. . . which unwittingly turns into a LOT more. 

And that’s the problem.

Frankly, it’s not great behaviour at any time, but it’s especially bad when it happens at night.

You end up staying up till the wee hours when you know you should be asleep, and know you’ll regret it the next day.

But you still do it.

The seemingly harmless glow of the smartphone screen late at night might look innocent enough, but the truth is, it holds a dark secret:

It not only has the power to interfere with our sleep; it can also erode our physical and mental health, and slowly destroy our happiness

In this post we’ll look at some simple science, some issues and symptoms, and some strategies for beating the bedtime bully for good.

The Science

How Does Using a Smartphone Before Bed Affect Sleep?

Alright, to kick things off, let’s get nerdy for a sec and look quickly at the science (in very basic terms).

Blue Light & Melatonin

Using a smartphone before bed wreaks havoc on the quality of our sleep and sleep duration mainly because of its blue light emissions.

While there are ways to decrease the amount of blue light entering our eyes by using blue light filters, it’s far better to get yourself off your screens at least 90 minutes before bed.

Why?

Because blue light fools our brain into thinking it’s daytime, suppressing the release of melatonin, the magical sleep hormone.

Normally, as the sun sets, melatonin levels rise, signaling to our body that it’s time to sleep. However, when we stare at screens at night-time our brain automatically thinks, “Wait a minute! is it DAYTIME already?”

That’s where the problems start.

An added issue is the fact we’re usually engaging with highly stimulating content, such as social media posts or video clips.

This quickly makes our mind active and alert, which, in turn, makes it much more difficult to wind down.

A Quick Note on Eye Health

We can help to improve or at least safeguard our eyesight by regularly doing activities that don’t include screens and exposure to blue light.

For example, spending time outdoors, connecting with nature in the natural light, and engaging in physical exercise all contribute to better eye health. It’s pretty simple really.

These types of activities also provide a chance to apply the 20/20/20 eye-care rule, which advises us to gaze at something 20 feet away for a minimum of 20 seconds every 20 minutes.

It is also recommended to take a 15-minute break from all forms of screens every 50 minutes

It’s just something to bear in mind as you work out your strategy for not only getting rid of pre-sleep screen-time and creating a balanced screen-time diet.

Circadian Rhythm 

The nocturnal phone habit not only makes it tricky to wind down and fall asleep; it makes it difficult to stay asleep, too.

It messes with our circadian rhythm, the body’s internal clock that manages our sleep-wake cycles.

So, instead of smoothly transitioning into a sleepy state, our bodies stay in state of semi-alertness.  

The end result? Poor sleep quality

And that means being a tried and grumpy the next day. 

REM Sleep

In the world of sleep, there’s a supercharging sleep state called REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep — you’ve probably heard of it.

REM sleep is a stage of the sleep cycle when your brain is active, you experience vivid dreams and your eyes move quickly in different directions (hence, “Rapid Eye Movement”).

It’s a critical part of a good night’s sleep that helps with memory and emotional balance.

The problem is, the REM sleep state requires a prolonged period of DEEP sleep, and if your chilling on your phone until the wee hours, that just ain’t gonna happen.

man yawning

The Issues & Symptoms

Not getting adequate sleep not only leads to feelings of tiredness but can also contribute to lead to a laundry list of health issues that we definitely want to avoid.

First off, it messes with our cognitive abilities, making it harder to focus and think clearly.

It also impairs memory, mood and judgement

That’s quite a cocktail.

Unsurprisingly, sleep-deprived people often experience social issues due to their irritability, which causes huge amounts of stress and begins to make them, and those around them, very unhappy.

If that wasn’t enough, a lack of sleep also weakens our immune system, putting us at higher risk of chronic conditions like

  • heart disease
  • high blood pressure
  • diabetes

Yikes.

Oh, and did I mention weight gain?

Lack of sleep also messes with the hormones that regulate our appetite, so we end up craving more junk food and snacking late at night (which is obviously a bad idea).

So, it’s pretty clear that using your phone to close to bedtime, or, even worse, going to bed with it (or any other device), is a seriously BAD move.

There’s no need for it and absolutely no evidence to suggest that it improves wellbeing. 

On the other hand, there’s PLENTY of evidence to show how it destroys it. . .

Some Simple Smartphone Strategies

6 Things That Improve Sleep

Set a Consistent Screen Curfew

Establish a specific time, say ninety minutes before you sleep, to put away ALL screens (including the TV — turn it off).

Make it a household rule, and stick to it consistently to create a routine. 

Create a Device Charging Station

This is a REALLY simple one: Designate a charging area OUTSIDE of the bedroom.

I often hear advice like: ‘make sure you don’t have your phone on your bedside table’, but that still means it can be in your bedroom, which is a terrible idea.

I’d say, make sure you don’t have your phone in your bedroom FULL STOP!

Why do you need it in there anyway? (And don’t use the old classic: “I might get an emergency phone call in the night and need to be able to respond.” No you won’t. And no you don’t. When was the last time that happened? Never?)

Establish a Wind-Down Routine

Encourage relaxation before bed (and no, that doesn’t mean watching YouTube clips or scrolling aimlessly through social media).

Maybe read a book, do some meditation, stretch, do some light yoga, have a warm bath or do some drawing.

Whatever it is, make sure it is a calming activity — one that doesn’t demand much from the body or mind.

Create a Sleep Sanctuary

Give your bedroom a cozy facelift.

It’s up to you how you do it, but the aim is to turn your bedroom into a peaceful oasis for sleep. 

Dim lighting, aromatherapy candles, fluffy carpets, blackout curtains. . . the list goes on. 

Take some time to really think about how you can create this ideal space for yourself, then do it.

Lead by Example (if you have kids)

If you have kids and want to help protect their mental health and boost their overall happiness, be a positive role model.

Make sure you limit YOUR OWN screen time before you try and limit theirs.

There’s nothing worse than a hypocrite — especially if it’s you parent.

When your kids see YOU actively strategizing and prioritizing sleep over screens, they’re more likely to do the same.

smartphone

Phones Before Bed: Final Thoughts

Devices — and smartphones in particular — are fun, but so is crack cocaine (apparently).

It doesn’t mean it’s good for you. 

The fact is, there’s so much else you could be doing instead of endlessly scrolling and swiping and secretly stressing yourself out — especially at night.

So, if you’re already at the stage where you take your phone into your room at night — or God forbid you actually sleep with it under your pillow or on the bedside table — then make a change today! — No, sorry: Tonight!

If you’re serious about creating habits that will help foster a happy mind, then it’s time to stand up to that tiny bedtime bully and banish it from the bedroom.

For good.

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