Ah, Mondays. Wonder why your employees are all yawning and glassy-eyed today? It may be easy to blame it on the hot weather or overindulgences over the weekend, but researchers are pointing fingers at another potential culprit that is increasingly interfering with our ability to get a good night’s sleep: Smartphones and tablet PCs.
Right before bedtime, bright lights are the enemy, inhibiting the production of melatonin, which helps you fall (and stay) asleep. Smart phones and tablets have the advantage of being small, but because they are so bright and so close to your face, the overall impact is similar to being in a fairly well-lighted room. (The light from your phone alone is equal to about half that of “ordinary room light.”) Making things even worse, short-wavelength light in the blue portion of the spectrum is the most disruptive to sleep patterns, and that’s the type of light that is typically over-produced by modern LCD screens. Poor sleep, it should go without saying, is a factor in all kinds of problems, ranging from low productivity at work to increased traffic accidents to diseases like diabetes and cancer.
This isn’t an entirely new phenomenon. Experts have been telling us about this problem for years, only in other ways. Everything from watching TV in bed to having bright lights on in the house at night has been demonized as a sleep disruptor. To combat the problem, one source has suggested using red light bulbs for late-night bathroom runs in order to minimize sleep disruptions—as a way to keep exposure to that blue wavelength light to a minimum.The problems are compounded over time, so the more you use your phone or tablet at night, the worse it gets. Since more and more consumers are using these devices in bed—to send emails, watch movies, read books, play games, and more—the problem is becoming nearly universal. It’s especially problematic with younger users, who habitually use their portable devices in bed every night.
The fix for all of this is easy, but for most of us it’s tough love to the extreme: Experts say screen time should end a full two hours before bedtime. (Even having your cell phone in the bedroom next to you is on the no-no list: With your handset in arm’s reach, you’re more prone to wake up and check your messages in the middle of the night.)
If you can’t cut the habit—and who can blame you?—one thing that might help is at least relocating where you spend after-hours time on your phone or tablet. Light exposure isn’t the only problem associated with using gadgets at night; another risk factor is the “learned association” between the bedroom and these devices. In other words, your mind begins to associate the bedroom and the bed with studying, work, or gaming, rather than training it to recognize these as places where you sleep. The more distance and time you can put between your phone or tablet and going to bed, the better.
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Christopher Null is a veteran technology and business journalist. He contributes regularly to TechHive, PCWorld, and Wired, and operates the websites Drinkhacker and Film Racket. Disclosure: He also writes for Hewlett-Packad's marketing website TechBeacon.