This article is not meant to diagnose or provide medical advice—that responsibility lies with physicians.
What’s the price we pay for scrolling through our social media accounts at all hours of the night? According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, approximately 60 million Americans endure some form of disordered sleep in their lifetime. Although there are numerous reasons a person may encounter poor sleep, a growing area of research is shedding some light on the way nighttime social media usage or nocturnal smartphone usage negatively affects the quality and quantity of sleep we are getting.
Sleep has been a lifelong challenge for Michigan resident Karen Whitsett, who sometimes lies in bed for hours or requires medication to achieve a refreshing night’s sleep. At first, grabbing for her phone seemed like a harmless, nighttime act. When Whitsett tried to fall asleep, she often felt compelled to check Facebook or Instagram “just one more time” before she closed her eyes. That was a “huge mistake!” she explained. She’d often encounter a second wind with a “Breaking News” story and find herself wired, anxious, awake and missing out on valuable rest. Whitsett’s experience lends itself to asking: are our social media habits causing us to have a poor night’s sleep? The answer seems to be, yes.
A letter issued by Harvard Health Publications suggests exposure to light at bedtime “throws the body’s biological clock—the circadian rhythm—out of whack.” As a result, our sleep suffers. Our phones and tablets emit blue light, which blocks the production of the sleep-inducing hormone, melatonin, and it signals our bodies to stay awake; even a dim glow can alter our circadian rhythm. Additionally, findings in a recent article in PLOS indicate people who spend a significant amount of time using their smartphones at bedtime experience both a lesser quality of sleep and a reduced duration. And just over a quarter of these nighttime phone users check for social media updates in the middle of the night, according to a Deloitte survey. In reality, our attempts to wind down using social media may leave us stimulated—the exact opposite of the peaceful slumber most of us are trying to achieve.
But a surge of blue light before bed isn’t the only thing keeping us wide-eyed. In fact, researchers from Cardiff University in the United Kingdom found that more than a third of young people awoke during the night due to social media disturbances and to send and check messages. Bedrooms have become “‘networked zones of social connectivity,’” and the study’s participants who repeatedly awoke to interact with social media were three to four times more likely to report feeling tired, exhausted or depressed the next day. The results of the study confirm, “there are significant and serious implications of the nighttime use of social media for levels of tiredness and well-being.” With growing societal pressure to be available around-the-clock, nocturnal social media usage is a rising, sleep-depriving behavior among all age groups.
“I’ve found that it’s difficult to sleep when my phone goes off with social media or email notifications throughout the night,” said a Washington D.C. local named Marissa (last name withheld). “I use my phone as an alarm, which makes it tough to disconnect entirely,” she said.
As a self-described “night owl,” Marissa expressed she has a hard time falling asleep when she feels anxious or wired from work—which creates a pattern of staying up late, then, struggling to wake up in the morning. She also discovered the frequent, nighttime awakenings from her social media alerts have negative consequences on her health. “I get headaches and blurred vision, and become easily irritable, and my energy gets really low,” she said.
To improve her quality of sleep, Marissa chose to disable the social media apps on her phone. “I’m also making an active effort to stay in bed at night with the lights off and phone away, even if I’m staring at the ceiling. I’m hoping it’ll help me break the habit of playing on my phone in bed until all hours of the night,” she stated.
Another study in the Journal of Adolescent Health looked at pre-bedtime behaviors of 146 teenagers an hour before bed when they were in school and on vacation. Researchers examined the social media portion of the study while the teens were on vacation. The study concluded that although adolescents demonstrate a range of behaviors before bed, engaging in “online social media was associated with significantly longer sleep onset latency.” In other words, bedtime use of social media correlated with an increased amount of time to fall asleep after the lights were off, and with no school assignments to worry about, that could not have been the cause. Plus, social media activity was a risk factor for shorter and poorer sleep.
California resident Ashley Goldsmith has been having sleep trouble for the last 10 years. Goldsmith struggles to keep a consistent sleep schedule and get sufficient, refreshing sleep. “I find myself on my phone a lot on nights when I don’t have to be up early for work the next day,” she said. “I will lay on the couch or in bed for hours just scrolling through social media. I’m often tired and ready to go to sleep, but for some reason, I just decide to lay there and scroll rather than go to sleep.”
These studies present a compelling case to suggest our social media habits are likely causing us to lose at least some of our precious shuteye and may even contribute to sleep problems. However, additional research is needed to provide a more comprehensive understanding of the impact social media has on our sleep over a longer period of time.
For now, if you’re looking for ways to maximize your restorative sleep, experts advise refraining from social media use at least one hour before bed—bonus points if you charge your device in a separate room altogether. While it’s tempting to click on that funny Facebook video of the panda eating a Popsicle when you’re in bed, researchers say, sleep instead.
Jenny Lelwica Buttaccio OTR/L is a Chicago-based freelance lifestyle writer and a licensed and registered occupational therapist with expertise in health, wellness, fitness, chronic illness management and business.