Technology plays a role in many aspects of our lives, and now it’s starting to affect our sleep. Is it time to rethink how we use it?
On a good day, Sydneysider Assumpta Venkatachalam will spend her waking hours going on a bushwalk and hanging out with friends. At night she might check her smartphone to confirm the train she will catch the next morning, but that will be the extent of her screen time for the day. The result is a good night’s rest.
“I find I sleep better when I spend less time looking at a screen,” said Venkatachalam, who suffers from chronic insomnia. Device use affects both the time it takes for her to fall asleep and her sleep quality.
As an IT professional, Venkatachalam can’t reduce her time in front of a computer during her workday by much. However, after conducting extensive research, seeing a counsellor and practising good sleep hygiene, she has devised a number of solutions to help achieve adequate shut-eye, including downloading everything from white noise apps to boring lectures. As long as it doesn’t require visual attention, it often – though not always – helps her nod off.
“The most effective change I’ve made has been a screen moratorium before sleep. Ideally if I can avoid screens between the time I get home from work and the time I go to bed, it’s by far the best outcome. It’s possible, but it requires discipline,” she noted. That means no TV or YouTube, no Google rabbit holes and limited contact with friends and family on messengers, reducing her entertainment and communication options to reading, exercise and phone calls.
Her case is not unusual; the more time we spend with screen technology, the more it affects our sleep – but it doesn’t stop us from engaging with it.
Dr Chris Seton, paediatric and adolescent sleep physician at the Woolcock Institute of Medical Research in Sydney, said it’s difficult for sleep to compete with devices. “Devices are cool and sleep is not. We don’t have clever marketing people to market sleep,” he added.
Treating Tech Obsession
One issue when dealing with tech’s effect on sleep is that sometimes it has less to do with the device and more to do with related psychological effects. Socialisation, for example, is now largely dependent on technology, Seton noted.
“When we talk to teenagers, the single most important reason they don’t want to give up technology is they’re fearful they’ll miss out on stuff, and they’ll get to school the next day and be ostracised,” he explained.
Dr Philip Tam, a Sydney-based child and adolescent psychiatrist, researches the addictive nature of activities such as games, akin to gambling addiction. In this instance, technology is an enabler and sleep deprivation is a symptom of its abuse.
Half the struggle is educating people on what healthy sleep is, and the other half is competing with technology for primacy. Oddly enough, if you can engage people on the former, you can often leverage technology to address the issue.
Wearables such as Fitbit have become a pivot for Seton’s patients. While not as accurate as a medical actigraph, “It gets them interested in measuring their sleep and that’s a starting point for chatting about it,” he said. If patients are data-driven, they’re more likely to be motivated to address sleep deprivation.
Seton also occasionally ‘prescribes’ a meditation app called Smiling Mind, which can be used as part of a pre-bedtime routine. “You have to be careful because you’re exposed to blue light, but part of therapy is to have 45 minutes prior to bedtime doing wind-down activities. That conditions the brain to sleep, which is the opposite of what screen technology usually does.”
As for what happens next, Seton said there’s more research to be done. “The medical research is way behind the technology development,” he acknowledged.
In the meantime, if your tech use disrupts your sleep, try to limit exposure before bedtime. Seton is realistic about completely removing tech from people’s lives: it’s not going to happen. The best he can hope for is to preserve the ‘golden hour’ before slumber. “No devices. And then try not to have the devices in the bedroom overnight. Just having them in the room increases the chances of daytime sleepiness by 200%.”