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October 2017
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Here is why using mobile devices before bed can kill you

Researchers and doctors warned that staring at the mobile screens before going to sleep would harm users’ sleep quality and health.

By Khanh Linh Pham 


“Assignment submitted! Finally, I can have an early night tonight”, I told myself at 11.50 p.m. So there I was, warm and blissful in bed. Instinctively, I took out my phone and checked if I had any messages from my parents and friends. Then, I turned to my iPad to check emails, and spent a little time on Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube. In the blink of an eye, it was 1 a.m. I was surprised at how much time I had wasted, but not really, as this happens every night. Because of this habit, I normally sleep for six hours per day, sometimes only five. And I am certain that I am not the only one who has the routine of checking mobile devices before bed.

Alarming situation

Media technologies have been brought closer to us more than ever, becoming an indispensable part of our lives. A 2013 research by the International Data Corporation showed that among smartphone users aged 18 to 44 in the USA, 79% had smartphones with them for all but two hours of their waking days. Furthermore, all the residents checked their phones within the first 15 minutes after waking up. While checking digital devices is the first thing some people do in the morning, that is the last thing some do to call it a night. A research conducted on 16 to 19 year-old Norwegians found that almost all respondents used electronic devices shortly before sleep. These statistics illustrate how mobile devices are being woven into our modern lives.

Mobile phone usage throughout a day among 18- to 44-year olds in the USA – Source: International Data Corporation

Mobile phone usage throughout a day among 18- to 44-year olds in the USA – Source: International Data Corporation

However, the overuse of digital gadgets has been raising concerns among health researchers and medics. Although it is recommended that teens and young adults sleep for eight to ten hours per day, the average sleeping time among young people is currently just over seven hours. At SLEEP 2015, an annual conference of the Associated Professional Sleep Societies, it was reported that juveniles’ sleep duration fell by ten minutes each year! While the reasons for this remain debatable, teenagers’ mobile devices misuse undeniably plays a role.

The one-eyed monsters that eat up your sleep

Checking mobile devices before bed reduces sleep duration and causes sleep-related issues – Source: Mirror

Checking mobile devices before bed reduces sleep duration and causes sleep-related issues – Source: Mirror

The argument that using mobile devices before bed affects sleep quality is not groundless. Studies at the SLEEP 2015 reported that people mostly used mobile devices at night for calls, texts, emails or Internet functions. The problem is, we get too immersed with the activities to realise that we have passed our bedtime. When being asked about her phone habit, Hoang-Linh Phi (19), an ICT student in Eindhoven, admitted, “Sometimes when I’m in bed, I think I’m gonna watch something on Netflix or YouTube for easier sleep, but then end up staying up until 3 or so.” As Hoang-Linh sleeps later but still has to wake up early for school the next day, her sleeping time is shortened and she keeps yearning for more sleep.

Electronic devices also deprive sleep by preventing the brain from resting. Electronic devices in general, which covers televisions, computers and laptops, emit a blue-and-white light that restrains the brain from releasing melatonin, a hormone that triggers sleep. As the eyes are exposed to this light, the brain is convinced that it is still daytime. Hence, the users may not feel like sleeping, sleep later and consequently do not get enough sleep.

Besides short sleep duration, late mobile use also leads to other sleep-related issues. In his article about social media and sleep, John Gever, the managing editor at MedPage Today, listed various consequences of sleep deficiency, including daytime sleepiness, sleep apnoea, and moderate to severe insomnia. Before researching this topic, I had never been aware of such detrimental effects.

Beyond sleep-related issues

Sleep deprivation caused by mobile devices misuse further sabotages the users’ health and fitness. Low sleep quality directly results in adverse physical effects. After the consecutive late nights, Hoang-Linh immediately felt some problems with her body. “Usually, I have to bike about 15-20 minutes to school. And those days, my muscles just wanted to give up half way”, she remarked. Nonetheless, the consequence does not stop at our muscles. In an interview with The Huffington Post, Dr. Anne-Marie Chang, an associate neuroscientist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, Massachusetts, linked sleep deficiency with serious health problems, including obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and risks of some cancers. Thus, although it sounds implausible, staring at the screens before hitting the sack might be killing you.

The lack of sleep also leads to mental damages. At SLEEP 2015, it was reported that students who checked social media during their sleeps were prone to impaired cognition. In her essay about sleep inadequacy in year 2000, Alice Park also pointed out that sleep shortage damaged our learning ability, memory, concentration, and even speech. Park also argued that sleep deprivation caused mood disorder, making us irritated and depressed. Hence, unless you want to be the next Grumpy Cat meme, perhaps you should shut down your mobile devices while switching off the bedroom light.

It is time for bed

Now that you know the downside effects of your phone habits, it is time for some changes. Some experts recommend we stay away from the devices for about one hour before sleep. Tanya Lewis, a science reporter at Business Insider, tested this and wrote an article about her experience. Every night, after leaving work, Lewis avoided all electronic devices. Throughout that screen-free week, she felt a positive change. “I do feel like avoiding screens in the evening helped me fall asleep faster, and I felt fairly rested during the day”, Lewis noted. Therefore, unplugging at night, or at least one hour before bedtime, is a good solution.

However, for some people like Hoang-Linh – an ICT student, whose work involves electronic devices, unplugging is just impossible. Here is an alternative. There are some free software programmes, such as f.lux, that moderate the saturation of the computer light. iPhone also has an “invert colour” option that makes bright colour appear darker and vice versa. This adjusted light releases eyestrain, and therefore helps you fall asleep more easily.

In a nutshell, it is time for us to take control of our mobile devices use, or at least to regulate our mobile behaviours before bedtime. For me, I no longer want to look like a yawning zombie while attending morning lectures. Thus, as soon as I finish this article, I will switch everything off. This time is for real!

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