Shining a Torch on Sleep and Screens

By Nicola Morgan, whose latest brilliant science-based title is The Awesome Power of Sleep: How Sleep Supercharges Your Teenage Brain. (Other brains are available and all my sleep advice is for anyone!)

We keep being told to avoid screens before bed because of the light. But is this true? As it happens, this is another of those areas where headlines need to be ignored and the science unpicked and set in a real-world context. So what does stack up as genuinely sensible advice? 

What are screens?

All are different. They differ in the light they emit: what sort, how much, how close and how controllable.

But they differ in a far more important way: what we do on them. Reading a book is not the same as playing a game; reading a website differs from using social media; friendly chat is not the same as distressing argument; a beautiful picture affects us differently from a shocking image; watching a film is not editing a blogpost. Etcetera.

These differences matter in both of the following contextsL

Screens and light

To cut a long and clearly fascinating section in The Awesome Power of Sleep short: this is not the big real-world issue, despite what you’ll often read. 

Here’s my nutshell interpretation of the science 

  1. The effects of screen light on sleep may be small or unnoticeable for many people.
  2. But if you sit close to a bright screen for a long time before bed, your brain might think it’s the middle of the day and not trigger night-time sleep. 
  3. There’s not much evidence that the screen-dimming settings make enough difference.
  4. If you use a screen before bed and still fall asleep easily, have a good night and are alert during the day, there’s no problem. Or not from light. Next point…

Screens and alertness

This is a far bigger risk and the reason why we should turn screens off (with one exception) 1-2 hours before bed. Most screen use wakes brains up. Messages stress, upset or excite; information arrives, triggering dopamine, the YES chemical; moving images generate wakefulness.

Screens usually wake us up, regardless of their light.

But what if watching TV or a film stops me worrying so I can sleep?

A valid question. The same applies to playing games. They can help a worried person stop worrying and worry is the big preventer of sleep.

However, the risks are huge: films and games both tend to raise heart rate. Most films are too long for a pre-sleep activity but it’s tempting to keep watching. Light and movement might hinder sleep. And when the film ends the screen stays on and possibly makes more noise.

I strongly recommend that even the most worried person doesn’t use screens before bedtime to switch off their worry. There’s a better solution: books! Whether in print or on an eBook reader, books are good at helping us sleep. In The Awesome Power of Sleep I have a pretty cool explanation for why! 

That exception: Why are eBook screens OK?

Dedicated eBook readers should not hinder sleep as long as a) they are not backlit (in case the light does affect you) and b) all notifications are turned off. If you read on a tablet, have the screen brightness down low and use a normal bedside reading light, just as for reading print.

The science suggests that there could still be a slight negative effect from aspects of your screen, but this should be outweighed by the benefits of reading in bed. Being engaged in a book you’ve chosen (bedtime reading must be a pleasure) switches your daily worries off and shifts your brain into a state where it can drift sleepwards. Sometimes a little too quickly, let’s be honest… 

For so much more about the fascinating insights into sleep and how to get enough of it, join me for an online event coming soon: keep an eye on my blog. Meanwhile, keep reading and sleep well!

Nicola Morgan, The Teenage Brain Woman, is a multi-award-winning author whose work on young brains, psychology and mental health is loved by teenagers, schools and families around the world. She has been a YA novelist, English teacher and dyslexia specialist and the mother of two teenage (now grown-up) daughters. 

Nicola does talks, online or in-person, for conferences, schools, parents and public audiences. She has created unique teaching materials, including videos: terrific value for schools, bringing all the benefits of repeated visits at a fraction of the cost of one!

See Nicola’s blog for details of upcoming online events open to the public.


Twitter: NicolaMorgan

Insta: NicolaMorgansBrain

Any opinions expressed may not truly reflect those of the FCBG.

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