Sleep and Technology:
The Good and the Bad
3/11/2020 | Casper Editorial Team
After a long day at work or school, it’s nice to just lie in bed and surf the internet for a while. Focusing on something besides the events of the day can help us relax and reduce stress. In fact, according to a poll from the National Sleep Foundation, nine out of 10 Americans use some sort of technological device before they sleep, and if you’re under 30, you more than likely use a cell phone.
Modern advancements have made it that much easier for us to distract ourselves from everyday stressors. However, there’s a tradeoff when it comes to our unconscious selves. The National Sleep Foundation conducted a study and found that many Americans are racking up a sleep debt (the cumulative effect of not getting enough sleep) due to an increased use of electronics.
The relationship of technology use and how it impacts sleep has largely been observed as negative, especially among younger generations. However, the effect technology can have on sleep can either be good or bad, depending on how it’s used before bed.
We’ve collected the relevant information on how this can happen and provided recommendations on how to balance technology use and getting a better night’s sleep below.
How Technology Negatively Affects Sleep
One of the issues stemming from modern technology is the way that it has impacted our sleep habits. It’s completely normal for someone to check their phone or watch TV before they go to bed.
Unfortunately, this has the negative side effect of disrupting natural sleep cycles in a variety of ways, as evidenced by Dr. Anne Marie and her colleagues. Here are a few ways that technology can negatively affect sleep.
Blue Light Keeps Us Up
Without getting too much into the specifics, visible blue light is the shortest wavelength with the highest energy. It keeps us alert and focused, boosts our mood and helps provide a stable circadian rhythm.
Before modern technology gave us artificial lights and tiny, personal computers in our pockets, our only source of blue light came from the natural light produced by the sun. Now, our exposure to blue light occurs more frequently than ever, especially at night.
Blue light affects sleep by impacting melatonin levels more than any other form of light. A study published in the Journal of Biological and Medical Rhythm Research reported that two hours of blue light exposure in the evening can drastically suppress the amount of melatonin in the brain, reducing overall sleep quality. According to the NCCIH, melatonin is a hormone that helps regulate your body’s internal clock and typically responds to darkness by making you feel sleepy at night, but exposure to blue light can disrupt this process.
This isn’t to say blue light is the devil: Seasonal Affective Disorder — a form of depression that occurs with seasonal change, usually experienced during fall and winter — is often treated with light therapy that includes blue light. Nevertheless, too much of it from a phone or computer screen will negatively impact your rest.
Overstimulation Keeps Us Awake
Quickly checking texts or looking over work emails before bed seems like a responsible thing to do, especially when the Internet of Things keeps us all connected to each other and everything. Smartphones are a big example of that, since they let us connect to practically everything for entertainment and information.
Checking your phone before bed keeps your mind “psychologically engaged,” which, according to Dr. Harneet Walia, “stimulates the brain so we are more active and awake.” However, staying stimulated not only fools the mind, but if you see or read something that’s particularly exciting or engaging, it’ll be harder for you to go to sleep.
It’s not just that modern technology is bright, but it’s also the fact that it’s a window to the entire world. People are consistently being updated with new information, with things like friends’ stories or the latest news stories that keep you awake. According to a study of Harvard Researchers, seeing these things can excite our brains and make it difficult for us to relax, negatively affecting sleep.
Nevertheless, there are ways that technology can be used for increasing our overall quality of sleep.
How Technology Can Help Our Sleep
Although it may seem like using technology will forever disrupt our sleeping habits, there are ways you can leverage technology for a better night’s sleep. From smartphone apps to wearable technology, there are numerous options for understanding sleep patterns.
Sleep Tracking Apps
One of the easiest ways technology can improve your sleep is by using a sleep tracking app to document your sleeping habits and identify places to improve. Sleep apps won’t magically improve your rest, but they can provide beneficial insight into your sleeping behaviors. Knowledge is power, and learning where you can improve can definitely help you sleep better at night. One of the most important things you can consider is the regularity of your schedule throughout the week. A sleep tracking app can help you see variations and make adjustments. For example, getting up very early some days and very late other days can lead to sleep disruption. Tracking with an app can help you set goals to improve the regularity of your sleep schedule.
One sleep tracker that can help is the Sleep Cycle app, which uses patented sleep tracking technology to track your sleep and your lifestyle habits, integrating the information to give you a better understanding of your sleep. From there, you can set an alarm to help wake you up at the best time, according to your sleep cycle.
Or, if you’re more goal-oriented, the SleepScore app acts like a fitness app but for sleeping. Its sleep tracking scores your sleep based on six guidelines, providing recommendations on how to improve your sleep.
It’s important to note that although they can help provide insight into your sleeping habits, there’s a lack of research that shows the overall clinical value of the apps, according to a report from the School of Nursing at the University of Pennsylvania. Nevertheless, getting a look into your sleeping behaviors can be the first step in a better night’s rest. Be sure to consult your doctor if you have any questions.
Another type of technology that can help out is a meditation app to help put you in a calm state of mind. Mindfulness meditation and other meditative techniques have been shown to improve sleep quality, according to the Keck School of Medicine. Whereas the sleep tracking apps can help give a sense of sleeping methods, mindfulness apps can help you get in the mood to sleep.
The Headspace app is one of the most popular apps in the Health & Fitness section of the Apple app store; it provides many different options to help you get into the right mindset to meditate and relax.
Our personal favorite, the Casper Sleep Channel, is a magical slumberland of sounds, meditations, and bedtime stories to help you wind down and drift off. It's available to stream on apps you likely already own, like Spotify and YouTube.
Likewise, the Calm app has a few guided meditations and “sleep stories” that are similar to bedtime stories, to help guide you to a better sleep. Utilizing these apps takes away the stress of learning to meditate on your own for a better night’s rest.
Wearable Sleep Trackers Can Provide Advice
Where sleep apps give you a broad overview of how you sleep, wearable sleep trackers will help you identify different sleeping patterns. They can help you identify a “rough sense of the time (you’re) spending in bed . . . and the regularity of sleep zone,” which are extremely beneficial, according to Katherine Dudley, MD, MPH.
For example, if you feel sluggish when you go to bed at 10 pm, but feel active when you sleep at 11 pm, the sleep trackers will take note of that. Using this information can help you leverage your unconscious habits for a better night’s rest.
Sleep tracking technologies, like wristbands and headbands are among the more popular examples of wearable sleep trackers. Here’s a deeper look at a few:
One of the most well-known wearable sleep trackers is the smartwatch. Smartwatches are able to collect data about your health (how many calories are burned in a day, when to stand, etc.). They’re also able to identify when and how we’re sleeping.
The downside, however, is the fact that they can sometimes be a little uncomfortable. If you can get past that, then a smartwatch can help you identify any areas of sleep that need improvement. Also, resist the urge to check the time at night. This can make it harder to fall asleep if you wake up.
Using Light to Help You Sleep
The bright lights in a room can make it difficult to fall into a deep sleep, according to Kristeen Cherney, PhD in an article reviewed by Deborah Weatherspoon, PhD, RN, CRNA. This is due to the way color temperature in light affects the brain: Colder light, such as blue light, keeps you alert and awake, whereas warmer light that mimics the color of a fire or the sunset can create a sense of comfort and relaxation, guiding you to a better sleep.
Programmable lights, like Casper’s Glow Light, can help in that regard. The Glow Light can set up a warm light to help set up a relaxing feel as atmosphere, gradually dimming to help you doze off into a soft sleep. You can also schedule the Glow Light to wake you up more naturally in the morning with a soft, warm light (alarm-free!).
Blue Light Filters
Let’s be honest: It’s hard to stop using your phone, computer or tablet before bed. Who doesn’t like binge-watching a show or reading an article to help them go to sleep? It’s convenient and the world is in the palm of your hand. Even though staring at a screen before bed affects the quality of sleep, the effects of blue light can be lessened.
A study from Ophthalmic & Physiological Optics found that utilizing blue light filter glasses can increase quality of sleep. The same report also stated that the blue light filters from your phone and computer can also help diminish the amount of blue light that affects your eyes, providing the same positive effect on sleep.
How to Sleep Better
As with most things in life, there needs to be a balance between health and fun. Modern technology has combined the practical and enjoyable aspects of life into one portable package that sits comfortably in your pocket.
Smartphones aren’t evil, and they have definitely helped make life easier for many people, but learning how to strike a healthy balance can make all the difference between a good night’s sleep and rushing to work exhausted.
No Tech in Bed
A good rule of thumb is to only use your bed for sleeping, meaning that there is no computer or phone use in it. The reason for this is, according to the AAST, a community for sleep-care professionals, keeping technology out of your bed can help provide more peace of mind when you sleep. Turning your phone on vibrate or silent and keeping it out of arm’s reach can help keep you distraction-free.
Read a Book Before Bed
The Mayo Clinic has reported that reading before bed can help create a routine that can help reduce stress, calming your mind and lulling you into a relaxed state of mind. Those who are less stressed and anxious are better equipped for a solid night of sleep. Although a physical book is preferred, using a tablet or e-reader with a blue light filter can also work. With the availability and affordability of e-books, it makes sense to use what’s available.
Don’t Use the Phone/Computer When You Wake Up
Using your phone right when you wake up can negatively affect your entire day, according to Dr. Nikole Benders-Hadi. Dr. Benders-Hadi states that it affects the way you prioritize your day, increasing your anxiety and worry levels, even if you’re just checking on something from work.
Technology makes all of our lives easier, but it does have the added effect of making sleeping a little harder than it needs to be. Although it may not seem like it, sleeping better doesn’t have to be difficult. There is some effort that’s involved, but learning about how technology affects sleep and using it to garner a better night’s rest can help repay your sleep debt.