Just one more email? Just one peek at Facebook? Just one more video game?
It’s easy to convince oneself that those few extra minutes are not a problem. But the reality is, spending time on your phone, tablet, or laptop late in the evenings could be messing with your sleep. How? In three ways:
The biggest issue is all our electronic devices — our laptops, tablets*, and cellphones — emit blue light, which delays the onset of melatonin, the sleep hormone that signals to your body it’s time for bed. The longer we remain on our devices late in the evening, the later melatonin kicks in and the shorter its overall duration.
*The Kindle paperwhite, whose LEDs direct light towards the page rather than towards your eyes, emits less blue light than an ipad, but still does emit some blue light.
Let’s be honest. How likely is it, really, that you’re going to close your laptop after just one email? Or that you’re going to say no to bingeing on one more episode of your favorite show on Netflix? Or that you’re going to look at just one Instagram posting? The truth is, minutes easily lead to hours.
The other thing is, these activities can sometimes wind you up, when you should really be winding down. Looking at work email late at night tends not to be a soothing practice. It can make the mind whirr. Watching the news or scrolling articles on your phone can activate our brains, especially these days with headlines dominated by COVID, racial injustice, climate change, and the upcoming election. Even an engaging movie, which seems like it would be purely entertainment, can agitate us and mess with our sleep.
So, what to do instead?
Take a warm bath or shower, a sauna, or hot tub. Why? When we sleep, our core body temperature declines a couple of degrees. When we take a warm bath or shower or sauna or hot tub before bed, blood flow brings heat from your core to your body’s surface, and your core temp actually drops a couple of degrees. So this warm bath or shower is actually preparing your body for sleep.
How about a real book or a real magazine? What a novelty! Anything not electronic will do. While you’re at it, turn your cell phone off or switch it to airplane mode and plug it in somewhere other than the bedroom.
After dinner, turn off or dim any bright overhead lights or switch to candles, giving your body the signal it’s time to wind down.
Play relaxing music or listen to a podcast that won’t agitate you. Several apps offer soothing sleep stories. The Headspace app (for iOs or Android), known mostly for its meditation offerings, also offers sleep-specific offerings, Sleep by Headspace, which includes calming music and sounds, as well as bedtime stories called sleepcasts. Calm (also for iOs or Android) has sleep-focused exercises and meditations. Slumber (for iOs) offers bedtime stories and soothing background noise.
What if you just can’t separate from your devices?
I might know one or two people who fit this description. If there’s absolutely no way you can separate yourself from your devices late in the evening, there are a few solutions:
If you have an iphone or ipad, there’s a night shift feature that reduces the blue light released from it. On your device, go to Settings→ Display & Brightness> Night Shift. You can set it for 8 pm to 6 am for example, or you can ask it to automatically adjust based on sunrise and sunset, which it will do based on your location.
For Android users, open the Settings app. Select Display→ Night Light. Here, you can also set a time window for when you’d like it to activate.
Invest in blue blocker glasses. These prevent a percentage of the blue light from your screens from penetrating your eyes. There are tradeoffs here: often the glasses that block the most blue light also make it harder to distinguish colors on your screen. However, for those who must be on their screens right up until their head hits the pillow, blue blocker glasses can be a helpful investment.
Both Night Shift and blue blocker glasses are better than nothing, but they’re a BandAid. The far better solution is to refrain from technology a few hours before bed.