Does Using Your Phone at Night Really Harm Your Sleep?

What does using your smartphone before bed do to your sleep? Take a look at how different types of apps affect sleep quality.

By Alesandra Woolley

If you’re one of the millions of Americans who have trouble falling asleep at night, a major culprit disrupting your peaceful slumber could be within arm’s reach: your cell phone.

Research shows that blue-and-white light emitted from electronic devices like our smartphones, tablets, and TVs stops our brain from releasing melatonin, the hormone that helps us fall asleep. Logging on before nodding off for the night could be keeping you up, and too many years of similar behavior could alter your internal body clock entirely.

But how much time are most people spending on their phones before bed and what exactly are they doing? To find out, we polled over 1,000 Americans about their app usage before heading off to dreamland. Then we analyzed their responses to determine which apps (like Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, and Reddit) might be preventing a good night’s sleep. Read on to see what we discovered.

Couple using phones in bed

Nighttime App Usage

Nearly 77 percent of respondents admitting to logging into various social media applications before hitting the hay. Less than 39 percent preferred games, and only 14.6 percent used their phones to read before trying to fall asleep.

Across each generation, Facebook was the most commonly used app before bed – more popular among Gen Xers than any other age group. Time spent on Facebook may not be as engaging as you might expect: Research suggests only 9 percent of Facebook activity involves communicating with other people, while the rest is spent arbitrarily reading through random pieces of content. (Sound familiar?) Studies have also shown that people often experience a decline in their mood after spending time on Facebook, which can result in feelings of sadness or depression. Not the best way to end your day on a high note.

While roughly 1 in 5 Millennials and 1 in 10 Gen Xers scrolled through Reddit before bed, Millennials were the only generation to look at Instagram at night and were the least likely to use Twitter.

Sleep by the App

Respondents who didn’t use phone apps before bed were the only ones who rated their sleep quality a perfect five, making this group a definite outlier from the rest of the app-using pack.

People who watched YouTube more than any other app didn’t just have the lowest quality of sleep – they also admitted to logging below-average nightly zzz’s. With less than seven hours of sleep each night, on average, and a three on our sleep quality scale, YouTube could be having one of the worst impacts on people’s nighttime routines. A majority of Americans watch TV before bed, which could account for them staying up later, and shows that create feelings of anxiety or suspense could make for poor sleeping conditions.

Facebook and Pinterest were also associated with less sleep overall and a lower quality of rest, while Instagram, Snapchat, and Tumblr reported above-average sleep quantity but below-average quality.

Social Sleepers

While more than half of Americans admitted to checking their Facebook feeds before bed, they spent less than 28 minutes, on average, on the app before shutting down. Still, experts recommend waiting at least 30 minutes after using technology before trying to fall asleep. This means opening the Facebook app just once before closing your eyes could cost you almost an hour of sleep.

Reddit users acknowledged spending nearly 35 minutes exploring online posts, while more than 1 in 10 Americans who used YouTube spent over 52 minutes watching videos before bed. In addition to the recommended 30 minutes of “detoxing” after digital use, it seems watching YouTube before bed could amount to more than 82 minutes of lost sleep.

Twitter and Instagram were the least popular bedtime apps – Americans spent less time logged into either app before shutting down and falling asleep (between 22 and 24 minutes each).

Depending on how long you’re looking at your phone before bed – or even just how tired you are – you could end up falling asleep mid-swipe. Nearly half of Millennials admitted to having woken up realizing they’d dozed off with their phones still in-hand. While only 39 percent of  Generation X Americans and 21 percent of Baby Boomers had the same experience.

Counting Sheep or Content?

While research suggests that right before bed could be the best time for students to retain facts and figures when studying, people consuming educational content before falling asleep could be sacrificing critical rest. If you have too much energy at the end of the day or can’t seem to wind down after reading or watching something, you could find falling (and staying) asleep even harderMillennials said educational content (including books and financial materials) kept them up even longer – over 41 minutes on average.

Both persuasive and entertaining content cost people more than 28 minutes of sleep, on average, while persuasive content (including shopping and newspapers) kept baby boomers up for nearly 44 minutes.

Regular Routines

Getting a good night’s sleep regularly isn’t just related to how you feel when you wake up in the morning – it can also be pivotal to your physical and mental health. In addition to improving your mood, concentration, and productivity, getting the right amount of quality sleep each night can reduce the risk for heart disease and stroke, help you perform better athletically, and even boost your immune system. Of course, establishing good sleeping habits means making sure your nighttime routine is conducive to falling asleep quickly and staying that way throughout the night.

As we learned, most Americans’ conventional bedtime activities weren’t exactly geared toward the perfect slumber. More than 71 percent of people admitted to checking their smartphone (including email and social media) before bed, while more than half watched TV before calling it a night. Less than 30 percent made a point to talk to their significant other, and only 1 in 4 preferred to read before bed. Less than 4 percent of Americans chose to meditate before sleeping, and less than 3 percent wrote in a journal. Both of these activities have been linked to better sleep quality and less restless nights.

What you do when you wake up can be just as important as what you do before bed as well, and we found more than half of people reached for their phones to check their email, news, and more upon waking. Drinking water, exercising, meditating, and making coffee at home are all ways to get off to a productive start before the day truly begins.

Is Sleeping with Your Phone Safe?

From keeping you up too late in the evening, to disrupting sleep hormones, and even causing cancer, our cell phones have some downsides that make them less than ideal bed partners. If your spouse has their phone in bed also, it can be double trouble. Let’s take a look at the top areas of concern regarding sleeping with your cell phone:

Fire

Cellphones can catch fire. This is probably the last thing you think about when you take your phone to bed, but in fact it has happened. Several things can cause your cell phone to combust including issues with the battery, overheating when charging all night, and overheating when placed under a pillow or heavy bedding. Fire departments warn not to charge your phone overnight and not to place it under any bed covers.

Blue Light

The blue light from your phone’s screen mimics daylight and acts on your brain by suppressing melatonin, the sleep hormone. This can delay feeling drowsy and interfere with your ability to fall asleep, or it can cause a decrease in your quality of sleep where you find yourself waking during the night. Overall, it affects your circadian rhythm and can inhibit a good night’s rest.

Health Issues

The electromagnetic radiation from your cell phone is not considered safe for prolonged exposure. Although research is still in its infancy, the World Health Organization says that radiation from cell phones is “possibly cancer causing.” There are more studies confirming a link between cell phones and various health issues.

One understanding of the electromagnetic radiation or radio frequencies (RF) is that normal human DNA emits a frequency around 528 megahertz (MHz), and cell phones emit a frequency around 900MHz. The body and the brain can both have an adverse reaction to frequencies so divergent from their norm, and some of those reactions can result in serious health disorders. The following are some of the health risks associated with prolonged exposure to electromagnetic radiation from your phone being close by, even if you aren’t on it.

  • Low Sperm Count: Studies have found a link between lengthy cell phone exposure and both quality of sperm and sterility.
  • Headaches & Muscle Aches: Both these pain related maladies are linked to sustained cell phone exposure.
  • Impaired Memory: Cell phones are causing changes to the brains of their users. One outcome is changes to memory, impairing general recall.
  • Increases Tumor Growth: The level of radiation emitted from cell phones has been shown to increase the size of existing tumors.
  • Hearing: There is a link between hearing loss and radiation.
  • Cancer: Studies are linking continued cell phone radiation exposure to various kinds of cancer. Skin cancer, testicular cancer, and tumors in the heart, brain, and adrenal glands. One study in China found an increase in malignant tumors in the brains and spinal cords of phone owners.

Solutions for Safe Sleeping with Your Phone

Not sleeping with your phone is an obvious solution to eliminating the possible risks to sleep and health. In addition, sleeping sans your phone has many positive benefits like falling asleep faster and having a less cluttered mind when going to bed. However, if you don’t think you can give up sleeping with your phone, here are some things that can help.

  • Daytime Charging: Charge your phone during the day and don’t keep in plugged in longer than necessary to prevent overheating.
  • Alarm Clock: Buy a separate alarm clock, so you don’t have to use your phone and can turn it off.
  • Airplane Mode: Turn your phone to airplane mode to limit radiation while you are sleeping.
  • Turn Off the Sound: Turn off the sound at night and all alerts and alarms to prevent unintentional waking.
  • Blue Light Filter: Use a blue light filter on your phone. Some smart phones now have a blue light filter as a built-in option. Check your phone or purchase a separate filter.
  • EMF Protector: Purchase an EMF (Electromagnetic Frequency) protector to limit radiation exposure. EMF protectors are readily available in many forms online.
  • Another Room: Put your phone in a different room from where you sleep. Many recommend the kitchen for a permanent overnight location.

“Do Not Disturb”

It’s easy to feel glued to technology – it’s the way that many of us feel connected to what’s going on in the world. If looking at your phone first thing in the morning or right before bed is a part of your routine, there are some tricks to keep your biggest bedtime competitor out of sight and out of mind.

If your cell phone is your alarm, consider investing in an actual alarm clock or moving the phone across the room where you won’t be tempted to grab it. And if your phone is close by, consider putting it in “Do Not Disturb” mode, so a text or notification can’t wake you up inadvertently in the middle of the night. Even if you think you’re just looking at it for a few moments before bed, your phone could be stealing more time from you at night than you realize.

If there’s anything that is as important to your sleep quality as the habits you keep before bed, it’s your mattress. At Mattress Advisor, our goal is to offer unbiased insight on the best mattresses and bedding accessories on the market so that you can find your perfect fit. Combined with user feedback, expert consultation, and in-depth user interviews, our comprehensive review system will help you find the best mattress for your body and sleep preferences.


Methodology

We collected responses from 1,010 Americans on Amazon’s Mechanical Turk. Sixty-five percent of participants identified as Millennials, 24 percent as Gen Xers, and 9 percent as baby boomers. The Silent Generation and Gen Zers made up the remaining 3 percent of respondents but were excluded from the results due to insufficient sample sizes. Participants ranged in age from 18 to 81, with a mean of 35. Hypotheses were then statistically tested.

Participants were asked to report their sleep quantity as well as sleep quality on an average night. We then explored the various ways different demographics – primarily age – used their phones before falling asleep. Respondents were asked to reference their phone’s battery settings to determine the proportion of battery used by each app over the past seven days.

Limitations

The data we are presenting rely on self-reporting. There are many issues with self-reported data. These issues include but are not limited to: selective memory, telescoping, attribution, and exaggeration.

Sources

Fair-Use Statement

Does your audience want to learn more about smartphone usage before a visit from the Sandman? Have them rest assured by sharing our findings. We only ask one thing before dozing off: Please provide a link back to this page and credit MattressAdvisor.com for the production of this study.


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