There is no doubt that technology improves our daily lives. It has advanced medicine, industry, and so much more. Technology is a source of income for some, entertainment for others, and automation for many more. But, what your patients may not know about technology is that it could be ruining their good night's sleep.
Most people today go to bed with their cell phone, tablet, laptop, or television to keep them company. Unfortunately, the result of that can be a long night of wakefulness prompted by the light from these devices along with the stimulating mental activity required to play games, watch movies, or take care of last-minute work-related emails before turning in.
There's also the risk that they'll become wrapped up in what they're doing and continue long past the time they'd normally go to sleep. All these things combine to leave your patients getting less sleep than they're accustomed to and far less than they need.
Bright Light from Devices
The Sleep Health Foundation reports that the bright light from mobile phones, tablets, computers, and televisions blocks the release of the sleep hormone, melatonin, after only 1.5 hours of using technology in the evening.
Why is melatonin so important?
Melatonin is the hormone that signals the brain that it is time to sleep. The absorption of bright light through the eyes delays the release of melatonin, making it more difficult for people to fall asleep.
This exposure to light results in increased alertness in brain waves and improved results on mental performance tests. Follow that with reports of people feeling less sleepy after using their devices for an hour and a half, and there is cause for concern. The alarming discovery from this study, though, is that after five nights of exposure to bright lights from mobile devices, the natural body clock can be delayed that same 1.5 hours.
The effects of nighttime electronics use are even greater with children and teens, according to the National Sleep Foundation, with adolescents who text at night experiencing greater instances of daytime sleepiness. Unfortunately, increasing academic demands and busy social calendars make it difficult for students to complete their homework earlier in the day, requiring computer and tablet (since many schools utilize iPads for students) usage later into the night.
How can your patients decrease these effects on their own sleep?
As a sleep technologist, there are things you can do to encourage more sleep-positive changes in your patients' daily routines. These include discontinuing screen use two hours before the time they want to go to bed at night.
For those who must use technology at night - for school or work - suggest that your patients download an app to switch their screens from blue light, which is brighter, to softer pink colors. Some devices have this option as a built-in feature.
Increased Alertness/Stimulation from Technology Activity
When patients begin to unwind for the day, it generally signals the brain that it is time to go into sleep mode. This is especially true if they have a normal bedtime routine (take a shower, brush their teeth, put on sleep clothes, etc.).
However, when they include screen time during this critical "unwinding" period, they're filling their minds with information, knowledge, and thoughts. It could lead to information overload by loading their minds with information the brain must process before allowing them to sleep.
These cognitive exercises of filling the brain and processing the information are outstanding throughout the day. But when patients are getting ready to go to sleep, it's mentally jolting - sort of like drinking an energy drink or an espresso would be.
Stimulation from technological devices can be active or passive. Passive stimulation comes in the form of listening to music, reading e-books, and watching television shows or movies. Active stimulation occurs when using interactive devices that change what takes place on the screen according to user input. The Sleep Judge warns that both types of stimulation are still stimulation and can disrupt sleep substantially.
The recommended solution you can share with your patients is to stop using all screens two hours before going to bed, but also taking things one step further by removing all devices from the bedroom. Encourage patients to try this for one week to see what a difference it makes in their ability to fall asleep and their overall sleep quality.
Activity Absorption & Extra Distractions
Patients who use screens before going to sleep are dealing with the ultimate sleep distraction. It's too easy to get lost in what's taking place on the screen.
"One more chapter" becomes finishing an entire book.
"One more level" turns into another hour of hunting orcs in a favorite game.
"One more episode" becomes finishing a season from their favorite streaming services.
"One more text" becomes an all-night comfort session when a friend needs a shoulder.
"One more email" becomes a late-night work session to iron out problems with a presentation.
One more minute - when it comes to screen time at night - can easily turn into several hours if patients aren't careful. When patients keep their minds absorbed in these "one more" activities, it tricks their brains into believing they should remain awake.
That is only part of the problem, though. Due to the fact that everyone is now connected at all hours of the day or night, people are more likely to wake up during the night as the result of a message or notification received.
Whether they realize it or not, your patients are "tuned in" to the sounds their devices make - even when they are set to vibrate. Sleep.org reports that sleeping with electronic devices results in nearly an hour's worth of difference in sleep among kids between the ages of six and 17 when compared to children who do not sleep with electronic devices.
What can you recommend to combat this?
Suggest that patients turn their phones to silent rather than vibrate, or simply remove the devices from their bedrooms altogether. For those who rely on mobile devices for an alarm clock, suggest that they consider switching to a nightstand clock instead.
The bottom line is that sleeping with electronic devices within arm's reach can be a distraction just as much as using these devices too close to bedtime. Suggesting that patients remove these devices, and the temptation they bring, can help them enjoy more sleep throughout the night along with improved sleep quality.