Restless nights? Smartphones could be to blame

Simone Wolberg

Any Redwood student can confirm what experts and studies already tell us – smartphones distract us from getting needed rest.

Photo by Simone Wolberg
Photo by Simone Wolberg

But recent studies have discovered an even deeper relationship between smartphones and an insufficient quantity and quality of sleep.  This new data seems to show that the kind of light emitted from the cell phone, if used before bedtime, interrupts and negatively affects natural biological sleep rhythms.

A 2012 study by the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York concludes that eye exposure to the light of a smartphone could cause a drop in the body’s melatonin, a chemical which triggers sleep, levels by 23% and affect the quality of rapid eye movement (REM) sleep.

Dr. David Claman, director and professor at the UCSF Sleep Disorders Center, confirms that smartphones can and do distract teens from sleep. He is less certain as to whether it is the qualities of the light, by themselves, that is the cause as much as current teens’ late-night social habits.

“I think that there is a difference between objective research and subjective opinion.  I don’t think that there is research that would say smartphones cause people to stay up later.  But I think that it’s a pretty common experience,” Claman says.  “Subjectively I think it’s true that if you’re on smartphones, you tend to stay up later and you’re more likely to get sleep deprived because of that.  So it can disrupt sleep schedules.”

Claman said he believes that REM sleep could possibly be affected, but that the issue is more related to sleep deprivation.

“I think the more relevant point is that if you stay up later you end up more sleep deprived.  And as a result you are tired more from sleep deprivation than necessarily from missing REM sleep,” Claman said.  “Yes, you are sleep deprived and you don’t get as much dreaming sleep, but the bigger issue in those situations is just more general sleep deprivation.”

    A 2013 study by the Mayo Clinic also suggests that smartphones suppress melatonin due to the amount of bright blue and white light emitted by a smartphone.  They found that devices emitting more than 30 lux, the measurement for light emitted by a smartphone, can lower melatonin levels in the body.  New models of smartphones like the iPhone 5S emit an average of 500 lux, the Samsung Galaxy S4 emits 424 lux, the HTC One emits 433 lux, and the LG G2 emits 376 lux, all well above what the Mayo Clinic calls the “melatonin-decreasing” level.

Claman believes that more studies should be conducted before the intensity and color of light can be related to drops in melatonin.

“Color and the intensity of light can make a difference.  There are different opinions about how important blue light and computer light tends to be,” according to Claman.  “It is hard sometimes to correlate melatonin levels with sleep quality.  But my own personal opinion is reading a book will less likely disrupt sleep than looking at a computer or phone screen.”

The Center for Disease Control calls lack of sleep an epidemic.  The National Institutes of Health (NIH) suggests that school-age children need at least 10 hours of sleep daily, teens need 9-10 hours, and adults need 7-8 hours.  Despite this medical recommendation, the NIH found that teens only get about 8 hours of sleep on an average school night.

“For the typical teenager, although it may appeal to society to start school at 8 or 8:30 a.m., that isn’t necessarily a good schedule for every teenager,” Claman said.  “There have been people who have advocated for starting the school day at 9 a.m. to make it easier for some people.  There are different ways to look at that in terms of whether you fit into society’s schedule or cater completely to what might be more conducive to teenagers.”

Carly Smith, sophomore, said her smartphone keeps her up at night. “When I’m about to go to bed I like to go on my phone.  I’ll tell myself,  ‘Only ten minutes,’ but it ends up being hours.  So I get less sleep.  I would get better sleep if I didn’t use my phone.”

Anika Berde, sophomore, believes the light from a smartphone would keep her up at night.  “I don’t generally use my phone at night, but if I did I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t be able to sleep because the light would wake me up.”

Although experts are unsure if or how smartphones affect the brain on a chemical level, they all agree that removal of electronic distractions before going to bed is advisable and essential for good rest.