Smartphones Keep Us Awake, But Reclaiming Sleep Is Possible

melatonin levels increase as retinal receptors register a decrease in blue light

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

Looking at smartphones around bedtime is ruining our sleeping routines. Specific lights shining from screens and the negativity of online culture both play a role. Fighting back may actually take more tech.

Woman laying in bed on her phone
Exposure to blue light at bedtime suppresses the production of the hormone called melatonin, which is central to your body getting the signal that it is time to sleep. Photo By DimaBerlin / Shutterstock

Our bodies naturally produce melatonin to help us get to sleep, but research says that looking at digital screens within an hour of bedtime interferes with our bodies’ melatonin production. In other words, looking at smartphones is messing with our sleep-and-wake cycles on a chemical level.

Experts also say that blue images or light coming from our phones is particularly bad for our eyes and our sleep schedules. Additionally, the frequency of negativity on news and social media sites exacerbates our time looking through them—a phenomenon known as “doomscrolling.”

And yet despite this, phone addiction is a real problem. What’s going on and how can we break the habit and regain our sleeping schedules?

Feeling Blue

In her video series How Digital Technology Shapes Us, Dr. Indre Viskontas, Assistant Professor of Psychology at the University of San Francisco, explained why we’ve heard that blue light on screens is worse for us than other colors.

“Indeed it is, largely because of how our vision evolved,” she said. “It’s no accident that our eyeballs are filled with water. After all, we can trace the emergence of vision to our aquatic ancestors, who evolved the ability to see light in a certain part of the electromagnetic spectrum, 380-720 nanometers, specifically.”

Melatonin suppression, Dr. Viskontas said, is most potent when our eyes are exposed to light in that portion of the spectrum that is blue. But why? Apparently, the ocean filters out longer wavelength light and lets in shorter wavelength light, which appears blue. Fish determine the position of the sun by the amount of shorter wavelength light that reaches them.

“We have special receptors in our retinas that contain a photopigment called melanopsin that is so named because of its relation to melatonin production,” she said. “As it registers the gradual decline of blue light, the suprachiasmatic nucleus of the hypothalamus increases levels of melatonin, signaling the rest of the brain that it’s time to sleep.”

Take Back the Night

Having more tech to combat tech-driven insomnia may sound counterintuitive, but for anyone who has trouble cutting technology off at night, there are alternatives to doomscrolling that involve sensory stimulation.

“Perhaps the most extreme and controversial form of the sensory stimulation technology is something called audiovisual stimulation, or AVS, which is designed to entrain your brain to synchronize its activity and set you into the sleep waves states,” Dr. Viskontas said. “Brainwave entertainment can either be open- or closed-loop. That is, you can simply put on a pair of goggles that present auditory and visual images at a certain frequency and assume that it gets your brainwaves entrained, or you can include a measure of brainwave activity in the form of an electroencephalogram, or EEG, that feeds into the system.

“The EEG data are then used to modulate the audiovisual stimulation, giving it real-time neurofeedback.”

Wearable sleep trackers can also provide feedback on your sleeping habits to help you learn when and how to get the best sleep. Their accuracy isn’t always 100%, but they do often report relevant data. “Smart mattresses” are also available for purchase, which adjust their firmness and temperature to your preference.

Finally, if blue light is the problem in your bedroom, night lights that emit primarily red light have come onto the market and prove effective. Red lights are simply the opposite of blue lights and they don’t seem to have the same melatonin-suppressing effect that blue lights do.

Edited by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily