If you’re unable to sleep after hours of lying in bed or wake up with a headache most days, the culprit could be your smartphone. While most people are aware of the radiation risks smartphones pose in our daily lives, they’re significantly more dangerous at night. After your workday is over, you might want to rest and scroll endlessly with your phone. But most people go to bed with their phone using social media, work emails, gaming, or movies. And the problem lies in the situation when they fall asleep with either the phone in their hands, near the pillow, or even switched on in the two scenarios. Phones do not emit ionizing radiation, but the problem of electromagnetic radiation still needs to be considered.
In physics, the inverse square law states that “a specified physical quantity is inversely proportional to the square of the distance from the source of that physical quantity.” This essentially states that the closer your phone is to your body, head, or pillow in any way (most impact in a perpendicular direction from the bottom), the more radiation it can receive. The farther it is, the lesser the radiation, as the inverse square law applies to electromagnetic energy. However, when we talk of sleep, our phones also emit infrared and electromagnetic radiation, which doesn’t pose an issue in everyday lives.
The effects of electromagnetic radiation from your phones have been proven to be carcinogenic. Apart from the risk of such a severe and long-term issue, having your phone near your pillow has different risks because of different reasons.
Sleep deprivation effects:
Phone can reduce our sleep quality and quantity with vibrations, effects of late screen exposure, and electromagnetic radiation. Sleep being a vital part of your health, sleep deprivation or reduced sleep quantity and quality is terrible for your overall health. Sleep disturbance through your phone or any gadget is especially bad because of how they affect our body’s sleep cycle with small-term effects. Although it may seem like a calming habit to scroll through the news, social media, work emails, the screen exposure within one hour of going to bed significantly impacts your sleep quality. You’re more prone to wake up having a headache or feeling groggy when you’ve fallen asleep with your phone by your pillow.
How your phone impacts if it is near you while sleeping:
Your phone impacts your daily life with radiation if kept too close to your body (especially head or chest). From vibrations to electromagnetic radiations, the effect of using your phone late at night on the brain, everything impacts us differently. Your phone’s vibrations do more than wake you up, and electromagnetic radiation impacts your brain activity and can be harmful to the heart and brain. Moreover, the overall impact of using a phone near you before sleep is forked and should be kept at a distance if not switched off. Your phone impacts your body in these ways:
- Radiations (infrared and electromagnetic) from App notifications (background app refresh):
Your phone uses your Wi-Fi or cellular combination or sometimes both to push notifications to you as they’re available. But one feature that most people aren’t aware of is the app background refresh that consumes the most battery power and is responsible for the max energy use.
This energy use is through the constant pushing or calling of notifications in the background that keeps apps updated no matter where you are. While you get notifications on time even without background app refresh, this process uses high battery power along with high connectivity. As a result, your phone is emitting high amounts of electromagnetic waves during the day or the night and catching other parts of the spectrum to keep apps updated.
The problem here lies in the fact that this level of constant electromagnetic radiation at any point of the day and close to your body is very harmful. The radiofrequency of electromagnetic power always on in the background is dangerous for your body and impacts your sleep. When you sleep with your phone near the pillow, this level of constant radiation (although not ionizing) is harmful because of high SAR (specific absorption rate).
- Blue spectrum effects:
A smartphone or any gadget before sleep is harmful to us through blue spectrum radiation. This is the blue light spectrum in the visible light from the screen of your smartphone. The blue spectrum or blue light during the night is terrible for our monkey brain because it perceives it as daylight. Although using your phone in low brightness doesn’t help deal with this issue, night mode (yellow tint setting) does. The night mode in your phone, PC, tablet, or any other gadget helps reduce or make the blue spectrum exposure negligible.
The effect of using any of the gadgets that emit blue spectrum is- deteriorated sleep quality, increased time going into a deep sleep, and even reduced sleep quantity. The best way to combat this is to keep your phone away at least an arm’s length away and one hour before sleep. The same applies to your TV, PC, or other screen exposure, as the blue light is harmful and keeps you awake for hours rather than the low brightness.
People with less sleep end up with long-term health issues like sleep disorders, diabetes, depression, and other diseases. Avoiding screen exposure at night is essential and helpful in keeping you healthy. You can read books (or e-books with e-ink, not on a tablet) and other activities to unwind.
- Screen time and your brain:
Have you stayed up late hours into the night, either chatting or scrolling endlessly, hoping you’ll get tired and eventually sleep? Some of us can relate to it, but the sustenance of this habit is bad for your sleep quality. Your screen time before bed, as mentioned above, limits your sleep quality, reduces deep sleep, and impacts other areas too. However, there is more to it than the blue spectrum from your smartphone screen, and that is the time your brain spends watching the screen. If you’ve been working all day, like in the current pandemic, you’re already exposed to a lot of screen time which impacts your health adversely. It goes beyond sleep and makes your brain tired/exhausted or drained to rely upon or slip into bad habits.
When we talk of sleep and your smartphone exposure before sleep, it needs to be as minimum as possible, and it directly impacts your sleep quality and quantity. The more you scroll, the more you feel like scrolling/watching or binge eating on the side. In contrast, when you engage in activities like reading, journaling, or any unwinding practice without screens, you’re less likely to get all these side effects.
If you’ve ever had hunger pangs, headaches, or sleepless nights after a night of late-night movies, gaming, or any other screen-intensive habit, your screen exposure is the culprit. The impact of screen exposure on our minds is more significant in adolescents as it reduces our attention span and impacts the way we live and go to sleep. After a while, activities like reading, spending time with family, or unwinding, in general, may seem too dull, and you may want to pick up the phone to repeat the cycle. This impacts our minds so much that we tend to pick up our phones to keep our dopamine rewards from the brain active the moment we wake up, either in the night or in the morning.
- Hormone secretion:
Your sleep hormone or melatonin levels also take a hit when you expose yourself to screen time late at night. The blue light spectrum is not only bad for your vision at night but also impacts your melatonin levels. Decreased melatonin levels mean you would face difficulty sleeping, staying asleep, and even exhaustion during the day. Since the hormone imbalance happens because of blue light exposure, sustained use and exposure to screens eventually affect other hormones in our body. This melatonin imbalance leads to poor body clock orientation and eventually leads to resetting your circadian rhythm. Eventually, your blood sugar, metabolism, and other things also go off-balance, leading to an increased risk of putting on weight, diabetes, immune compromise, and sleep disorders.
Your body clock resetting eventually over the sustained lousy habit of using your phone late at night is similar to working a graveyard shift. That is why reducing your phone, screen time, or any blue light exposure at least an hour into bedtime poses dire consequences for your health.
- Loss/reduction of REM sleep:
Another way phones impact your sleep is addiction and how they impact our REM or deep sleep—scrolling social media, watching horror/action movies, or games before bedtime leads to poor sleep hygiene. For example, you start watching a movie on Netflix or watching something you like before bed, and your brain demands so much more of it. You do not realize the time you’ve spent watching or scrolling till birds start chirping and you’re still not asleep and fresh for the next day. While this isn’t harmful once in a while, this behavior is addictive, and checking on emails, movies, social media, or gaming late into the night impacts our mind’s thoughts and induces anxiety/exhaustion.
Your phone’s presence near your pillow will have you checking in on it to get more of that dopamine reward before you realize you can’t sleep anymore. This level of distraction defeats self-control unless you place your phone at a safe distance where getting up is too much effort. All these activities together impact your deep sleep because of the multiple reasons mentioned above- blue light, electromagnetic and radiofrequency energy, hormonal imbalance, among others.
Slipping into deep REM sleep takes more time due to these factors, and you’re left probably addicted to the cycle and dopamine reward. It doesn’t even have to be rewarding; checking in on work emails or other professional situations calls for more anxiety and sustained use, which further deteriorates your sleep quality. Eventually, your brain is too engaged to stop, and it takes excessive self-control and discipline to drop it and come back to a calming habit before bedtime. All these factors make your smartphone more addictive, biologically harmful, and destructive in the long run. A calming experience like talking to your family, reading books, and other modes of staying mindful would take getting used to once you decide to keep your phone away before bedtime.
Things you can do to keep your phone away and get out of the habit:
Phone or screen time exposure before bed can be addictive, and getting out of the habit may not be as simple as keeping it at a distance. Although the best way to avoid electromagnetic exposure is to keep your phone at arm’s length, at least there are other ways to combat the habit. Here are some tips to help you get out of using any screen usage before bedtime:
- Night mode: To quit a bad habit, we need to start small. And if you’re looking to get out of using your phone, PC, or any screen time before bed, night mode is your best friend. While the blue spectrum of your screen time exposure keeps you awake, the yellow spectrum/tint of the night mode helps you sleep. This is because our brain associates sundown with sleep, and sustained use of a yellowish-orange tint in your devices are more likely to put you to sleep as it doesn’t activate your brain. While it might not help in the beginning, sustained use may help you to quit the habit as you’re more likely to fall asleep and not spend hours watching/scrolling or exposed to unnecessary screen time.
- Unwinding through non-screen habits: If you’re the kind of person who reads or watches movies before bedtime on your tablet or phone before sleeping, it is best to go offline. Reading books with a time limit and engaging in calming practices that do not involve a screen would be beneficial in helping you replace your smartphone’s adverse effects on your mind. You can look into journaling, reading, playing board games, talking to your partner, and anything that keeps you away from your smartphone and PC screen. These activities don’t stimulate or activate our brain in an addictive or harmful cycle like a smartphone or PC would induce.
- Switch on DND/Airplane mode: One of the main factors why your phone is terrible for your body and mind is how the electromagnetic radiation impacts your brain. Not only is it carcinogenic, but the presence of your phone and vibrations in the night impacts your sleep quality more than you think. That is why, in addition to keeping your phone out of reach and at a comfortable distance from your pillow/head and chest is critical. You can activate the Do Not Disturb mode of your phone to only ring/vibrate in case of emergencies from favorites. Additionally, using the airplane mode helps keep your phone in absolute zero electromagnetic or radiofrequency use. It doesn’t emit or receive any radiation, as it is perfect for use on a flight. That is why if you’re looking for perfect sleep, airplane mode can help if you’re not expecting/able to take any calls.
- Time limit before bed: There is a time window when you should stop all forms of screen exposure. By avoiding any screen exposure one hour before bedtime, you’re setting yourself up for a night of high-quality sleep where your phone doesn’t disrupt your sleep. This is important because most of the problem of having a phone near your bed lies in the gap between when you go to sleep and when you stop using your phone. Be it screen time, caffeine, or junk food; there is a time limit when these factors affect your sleep hygiene and sleep quality in adverse ways. The best way to stop is to establish a bedtime habit that you find calming and can help you relax at the end of the day without worrying about your phone.
We’re living in times when our phones and other devices run our lives and are responsible for our incomes, outside exposure, news, and everything related to the outside world. Phone usage isn’t harmful, or watching movies, playing games are excellent hobbies, but only as long as you’re able to sleep soundly afterward. In the current times, we leap from our work screen to gaming or movie screens at the end of the day, and it is excessive for our bodies given the sedentary lifestyle. Irrespective of the pandemic, our phones can steal our sleep, lead to more stress, social media, and the factors mentioned above. That is why you should be on the lookout for hobbies, mindful practices, and real-world activities that help you stay healthy during the day and at night without engaging in more screen time.