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Hang ups: How your phone messes with your sleep

Author: The Simple Bit

Category: Science

Sleep is important for so many reasons. And yet many of us may be sabotaging our sleep by using our smartphones too often, at the wrong times, or in the wrong ways.

  • Staring at a screen before bed can delay the release of the hormone melatonin
  • Delayed melatonin can mess with your body clock or circadian rhythm
  • There are strategies to help you scale back on phone use at bedtime
  • Buy an alarm clock (they still exist)
  • Do something non-digital (pottery, even)

The cool, blue-hued moonlight used to bathe two lovers in bed. Now, it’s the blue light from two phones with the background noise of fake news/cat videos/humblebrag holiday vlogs (delete as appropriate). It’s not just hopeless romantics who should be upset by this scene. Our phones might be portals to the universe but they’re wrecking our potential to get a good night’s sleep.

Lots of it is to do with a hormone called melatonin. ‘Melatonin relies on light to tell the body whether it needs to be sleeping or awake, so if light levels are bright then it’s suppressing melatonin’ says sleep expert and CQU researcher, Dr. Amy Reynolds. By staring into a backlit screen, we prevent our bodies from releasing this hormone at bedtime, costing us all-important zeds.

The knock-on effect of delayed melatonin is that your body clock or circadian rhythm can get out of whack. As anyone who’s been jetlagged will know, an upset circadian rhythm is a cruel mistress indeed. When it’s out of whack, it can impact both your metabolism and your mood. Harvard research suggests a shifted circadian rhythm actually increased blood sugar levels and decreased levels of leptin, the hormone that signals you’re full after a meal. Hangry or just plain angry; neither are a great way to spend your day.

By staring into a backlit screen, we prevent our bodies from releasing (melatonin) at bedtime, costing us all-important zeds.

If you think you can bend the rules for one last late social media check-in, think again. One study focused on how social media specifically might impact sleep and found it caused greater risk of insomnia, anxiety and reduced sleep. Perhaps you should save diving headlong into the endless scroll vortex for earlier in the day.

You might find ditching the phone has more far-reaching benefits too. ‘Phubbing’, the name given for snubbing a person in favour of your phone, was shown to decrease relationship satisfaction and even lead to a sense of depression and alienation. Putting your friends and family first sounds like the kind of win-win that’ll help you sleep easy at night.

You don’t have to go completely cold turkey to quash your phone hungry habits. Try these tips to kick things off.


Reminder: these exist. Pic by David Von Diemar


Put your phone to bed first

Think of it as your sweet technology child that needs extra rest. Aim to put your phone away about an hour before you hit the hay and use that time for something else instead. If you set a time, it’ll be a good focal point for getting any pesky last emails out the way too. See ya, shackles of employment! 


Go retro

Your willpower is likely to be depleted by the end of the day, so why not make things really easy for yourself? Buy an alarm clock (…they still exist! We were surprised too.) and charge your phone in a different room. It may seem like a small change but it’s the main excuse we use for keeping our phones by our beds. Our preference would be a radio alarm so you can wake up to your fave community station. Or 80s bangers, if you insist.


Get back on that (hobby) horse

It’s much easier to replace a habit than give one up completely, so swap your phone for a new activity instead. Maybe learn a language, meditate or write. Or go full Ghost and take a late-night pottery class (cliche, but it keeps both your hands and brain busy). Or stay closer to home and start a book club of one. Accompanying glass of red wine optional but highly recommended.