Glowing Screens: The Cause Of, And Potential Solution To, Your Sleep Problems

April 14, 2014

More than 35 percent of Americans sleep about six hours a night — an hour less than what we were averaging 70 years ago. But with the dawn of the ever-present smartphone and tablet, there all kind of apps and gadgets that are supposed to help us sleep better. So what's keeping us up in the first place? And what we’re doing about it?

It’s a typical night and I’m getting ready for bed. I place my glass of water on the bedside table, read a few pages of my book, glance at my phone one last time for any text messages or replies to any tweets, and I turn off the light. The glow of my phone calls out to me. I close my eyes.

*Ping*

I’ll ignore that.

*Ping*

Ok, I’ll just check my phone one more time. No, you know what? I’ll turn down the volume.

*Vibrate*

I know — I'll use my white noise app. But which one? The sound of the ocean? No, too rhythmic. How about crickets? Actually, that’s kind of annoying. Or maybe a train ride? Nah, that’s no good.

The next morning I scrolled through the app store. There are hundreds of apps geared towards sleep, making all kinds of promises: Some claim they can measure how much REM you’re getting, others track how many hours you get on a weekly basis. Some let you create a customized mix of soothing sounds. Which leaves me with a whole lot of options to help me fall asleep. But wait — wasn’t it my phone keeping me up in the first place?

Get jetlagged without a passport

“This light is delaying the onset of our evening melatonin,” said Mariana Figueiro, the Light and Health Program director at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. She says staring at screens late at night is telling our brains it’s daytime, no matter what the clock really says. We’re just wired that way.

“If you delay the onset of that evening melatonin, you delay the darkness signal to the body, and you delay your bedtime,” she said.

And that blue glow emanating from our computer screens and smart phones — it’s the exact same wavelength as blue sky. Which has the same effect on us as blue sky. We’re essentially jet lagging ourselves when we check our texts or weather app late at night. But we just may have a solution for that problem, says Figueiro.

"It is a personal sensor that we are now communicating with an algorithm in a computer, which can be done in a phone or a watch,” she said.

Figueiro's developing that sensor to detect when we’ve exposed ourselves to too much light. That sensor, she says, would be really useful as — you guessed it — an app.

"Something that would give you a signal and say, 'You know, you should turn down the light in your computer, because now you're getting too much light at the wrong time,'" Figueiro said.

Light problem solved. But what if there's something else killing my sleep and I don’t even know it?

Every move you make

So ... all I need to do is take detailed notes about every move I make every day.

“Technology truly is enabling a shift from old experiences and enabling people to do and understand more things about themselves,” said Sean Chraime, head of product and business development of SDI Technologies — the company that makes iHome products and the iHome Sleep app.

“We are enabling our users to learn more about how you sleep and what happens during the night.” Chraime said.

Great. Now I just need to add “track sleep” to my to-do list after I have picked up the baby, the dry cleaning, gone to the supermarket, and made dinner. Then I’ll know if I’m kicking and tossing during the night.

“I think the one potential to sleep tracking is that it does draw your attention to things that you may not have realized otherwise," said Maggie Delano, an electrical engineer at MIT who creates wearable technology to help people monitor their health.

"I think sleep tracking can really help people, but it’s a bit more challenging than saying, 'OK, I’m going to put this app at my bedside and I’m going to track my sleep,'" she said.

Tracking the mundane

Delano says these apps are only useful if you also keep a journal of your daily habits, like what time you had coffee, or when you went for that run.

“I think one of the big criticisms a lot of people have is that a lot of them are so mundane, but we’re so busy with our lives that we don’t pay attention to what’s right in front of us,” Delano said.

So … all I need to do is take detailed notes about every move I make every day. But as I stood at the checkout line, waiting to buy my new journal, I paused. Maybe all of this is making my life more complicated.

“I think sometimes technology is there for you to pick up and sometimes technology is there for you to put down," Delano said. "And it’s a matter of finding that right balance of yourself and knowing what your limits are.”

So tonight maybe I’ll try it the old fashioned way: get home, decompress, turn off the phone. And maybe — just maybe — I’ll get a good night’s sleep.


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