Why You Should Be Cutting Down On Screen Time Before Bed
The average Briton spends just shy of five hours a day looking at their phone.1 So it’s no surprise to learn that most of us check our emails, text people, scroll through social media or watch video clips before bed. But could it be a habit that’s bad for us? It seems likely that it is.
Of course, then there are all the other screens we may be tempted to spend time looking at just before we retire for the day. Our laptops, tablets, e-readers, televisions…
Research into screen use before bed suggests that it has a detrimental effect on our ability to fall asleep, stay asleep and wake up feeling refreshed.2 Overall, this negatively impacts your sleep hygiene. Let’s look into the reasons behind that and see if we can offer some practical advice to overcome screen-causing insomnia…
Falling asleep is not a quick two to three minute job. In order to maximise your chances of dropping off into a deep night’s sleep, the unwinding before bed process should begin a couple hours before you plan to drift off. You’re easing into sleep with a gradual calming of your mind and body.
Loud, punchy videos on bright screens and engaging or even irritating social media conversations wake up and stimulate the brain.3 That’s the last thing you want.
Even just a quick messages check or ‘doom scroll’ can activate the brain long after you put the phone down. The same goes for watching television or playing video games. An active brain is not one that’s likely to switch off any time soon.
Blue light, hormones and the circadian rhythm
One of the reasons we sleep is that the body creates hormones to encourage it. The pineal gland creates one such hormone called melatonin. It doesn’t send you to sleep, but it does help lull you into a stiller, quieter wakeful state before bed.4
Melatonin is produced when it gets dark outside and stops flowing through our bloodstreams as the day comes and light returns. As such, melatonin is central to our daily sleep/wake cycle, something that’s often referred to as our ‘circadian rhythm’.5
When our circadian rhythm is firing on all cylinders, we sleep well at night and remain alert and awake during the day. Any interruption to it and it can become out of sync, leading to insomnia.
For a good night’s sleep, you have to make sure your melatonin release is undisturbed. As such, you may be wise to avoid screens. Whether it’s your smartphone, tablet, TV, e-reader or games console, they all emit a certain type of light called ‘blue light’ which is shown to suppress the body’s production of the sleep-encouraging melatonin hormone.6
When to ditch the screens
Because the blue light given off by so many devices and screens is thought to be such a potential disruptor to restful sleep, the advice from most sleep experts is to avoid them before trying to fall asleep.
When exactly should you stop using screens before bed? Well, the specifics aren’t super clear. Different researchers suggest different times. In the US, their National Sleep Foundation recommends switching off half an hour before bedtime.7 Other academics have said that the window should be longer and suggest an hour or more, if possible.8
Alternative activities to screen staring
So, if you’re struggling with sleep and are a self-confessed screen addict, it looks like you may have to switch off before retiring. Just because the bedroom is now a screen-free zone, all is not lost. There are plenty of other things you can do to occupy your time and help yourself wind down, including:
- Reading a book or magazine
- Writing or journaling
- Listening to music, the radio, a podcast or a few chapters of an audiobook
- Solving a crossword or other type of puzzle
- Spending quality time with a loved one or pet
- Calling someone (just not on FaceTime)
- Enjoying a nice relaxing shower or bath
Feel like ditching the screens is too tough of an ask? There are special amber glasses which have been shown to soften blue light and mitigate its effects.9 Failing that you can try dimming the screen to the darkest setting that you can still see.
The alternative view
The science is fairly strong to back up everything we’ve said so far. But it’s far from settled. Some sleep researchers argue that screen time before isn’t necessarily going to lead to sleep deprivation.
A 2022 study by the University of Delaware indicates that screen use may not be the big boogeyman it’s been seen as for the past few years. In fact, according to the research in this study, a small amount of screen exposure before bed may actually be beneficial to problem sleepers.10
Those test subjects who looked at screens for an hour or less in bed before sleeping tended to fall asleep earlier and slept for longer than those with no screen use. However, those people who used a device for more than an hour before they slept, or multitasked while doing so, ended up falling asleep later and got less overall sleep.
So, perhaps a little light email checking or TV watching is okay, just try not to overload your brain with too much activity or blue light.
1, People devote third of waking time to mobile apps – BBC
2, Youth screen media habits and sleep: sleep-friendly screen behaviour recommendations for clinicians, educators, and parents – Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Clinics of North America, Lauren Hale, et al.
3, Youth screen media habits and sleep: sleep-friendly screen-behaviour recommendations for clinicians, educators, and parents – Lauren Hale, et al., Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Clinics of North America
4, What Does Melatonin Do, and How Does It Work? – Healthline
5, Effects of Light on Circadian Rhythms – The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health
6, The inner clock — Blue light sets the human rhythm – Siegfried Wahl, et al – Journal of Biophotonics
7, How To Determine Poor Sleep Quality – National Sleep Foundation
8, Why You Should Ditch Your Phone Before Bed – Cleveland Clinic
9, Blue Light and Sleep: What’s the Connection? – Healthline
10, Watching videos, TV or browsing the internet before bed WON’T harm your sleep… as long as you stick to less than an hour of screen use, experts say – Daily Mail