Remember how your parents used to put you to bed when you were a small child? The routine probably involved a bedtime story and a kiss. Now, as an adult, it might not be so bad to revisit that childhood tradition instead of all of the media activity most of us have come to rely on late into the night. Because, according to the 2011 Sleep in America poll taken by the National Sleep Foundation, most of us are not getting a good night's sleep on most nights…and one of the main reasons why, it turns out, is that we are staring at a screen before bed.1
The poll respondents ranged in age from 13 to 64 years old. Sixty percent of them claim to have sleep issues either every night or nearly every night. These can include waking up during the night, not feeling well rested upon waking in the morning, waking up earlier than planned, and so on. And most people reported not getting enough total hours of sleep. During the week seems to be especially bad, with people rising early for work or school, resulting in 63 percent not receiving the amount of sleep they need. The average on a weeknight for adults was 6 hours and 55 minutes per night. But approximately 15 percent of adults and seven percent of 13-to-18-year-olds said they regularly sleep for less than six hours on weeknights.
A large part of the problem stems from the fact that almost everyone is making use of media in the hour before going to bed. At least several nights a week, 95 percent of the participants report engaging in some form of screen-based technology close to bedtime. Depending upon the age and particular preferences of the person, the type of electronics varied between watching television, using a smart phone, going on the computer, and playing a video game. Approximately two-thirds of those over the age of 30, and half of those under 30, watch TV before going to sleep.
Any type of screen time right before bed is a no-no, say the sleep experts. The proximity to so much artificial light after sundown messes with our internal clocks and causes the body to not release enough melatonin, which is the hormone that helps us feel sleepy. It also increases feelings of alertness, probably starting a vicious cycle in which we say, if I'm not feeling tired, I'll just watch one more show or play one more game.
And sadly, televisions are probably the least of our problems. They are considered a "passive" form of media entertainment in which we really do not have to engage ourselves or do anything. Surfing the web, playing video games, chatting up a friend, or texting all use more "interactive" skills that will do even more to heighten our alertness and wakefulness at bedtime. So the 61 percent of participants of all ages who spend the last hour of their night on the computer and the 36 percent of teens and 28 percent of young adults who spend it playing video games are in an even less drowsy state than the TV watchers when bedtime rolls around.
Lack of sleep, even for a short-term period, has been linked in research to numerous health issues. Studies have shown that sleep deprivation increases your likelihood of getting type 2 diabetes due to lowered glucose tolerance and increased insulin levels.2 This causes the body to store fat, which jives with other studies that have found that lack of sleep promotes obesity. Other research has found connections between a lack of sleep and acceleration of the aging process,3 mental disturbances relating to exhaustion and an over-emotional state,4 and reduced immune system function,5 which can put you at increased risk for everything from colds to cancer.
If you want to start getting a better night's sleep, turn your technology off. Use it all you want throughout the day, but in the evening -- well in advance of bedtime -- stay away from the screens. Try some good, old-fashioned fun before bed to prepare yourself for slumber. Read a book (but not on your Nook), stretch out each different part of your body in bed for relaxation, or spend the time with your significant other talking with the lights off. Chances are good that your lack of sleep will catch up with you, and you'll be falling asleep in no time!
1 Williams, Jennifer Cowher. "Annual Sleep in America Poll Exploring Connections with Communications Technology Use and Sleep." National Sleep Foundation. 7 March 2011. Accessed 29 Jan 2012. <http://www.sleepfoundation.org/article/press-release/annual-sleep-america-poll-exploring-connections-communications-technology-use->.
2 Darukhanavala A, Booth JN 3rd, Bromley L, Whitmore H, Imperial J, Penev PD. "Changes in insulin secretion and action in adults with familial risk for type 2 diabetes who curtail their sleep." Diabetes Care. 2011 Oct;34(10):2259-64. Epub 2011 Aug 11. <http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21836106>
3 Copinschi G. "Metabolic and endocrine effects of sleep deprivation." Essent Psychopharmacol. 2005;6(6):341-7. <http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16459757>
4 Wessely S, Chalder T, Hirsch S, et al. "Psychological symptoms, somatic symptoms, and psychiatric disorder in chronic fatigue and chronic fatigue syndrome: a prospective study in the primary care setting." Am J Psychiatry. 1996 Aug;153(8):1050-9. <http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/8678174>
5 Michael Irwin, John Mccuntick, Carolyn Costlow, Meussa Fortner, Jack Wihte, and J. Christian Gillin. "Partial night sleep deprivation reduces natural killer and cellular immune responses in humans." Psychosomatic Medicine 56:493-498 (1994) <http://www.psychosomaticmedicine.org/content/56/6/493.full.pdf>