Digital Wellness: A Guide to Better Sleep
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Though most of us have been educated about our physical and mental health, the progression of technology has created a new type of health: digital. Your digital wellness is connected to your use of high-tech devices like smartphones, laptops, and tablets. Though we may not realize it, our relationship with technology has a real impact on both our mental and physical well-being.
In this guide, I’m going to explain the concept of digital wellness, show how it affects your health, and share some tips for improving your digital wellness.
Note: The content on Sleepopolis is meant to be informative in nature, but it shouldn’t take the place of medical advice and supervision from a trained professional. If you feel you may be suffering from any sleep disorder or medical condition, please see your healthcare provider.
Defining “Digital Wellness”
“Digital wellness is the opportunity for one to regulate and improve their use of technology so as not to hinder one’s health,” says Amber Petrozziello, a licensed therapist at Empower Your Mind Therapy (EYMT). According to Petrozziello, too much time spent on smart devices can lead to a range of negative consequences, including stress, anxiety, depression, and impaired sleep.
Though the digital age seems to necessitate constant connectivity, it’s important to unplug every once in a while to protect your physical and mental health. Dr. Aniko Dunn, who is a provider specializing in depression, anxiety, and more at EZ Care Clinic, says that using technology mindfully is one of the ways in which we can improve our digital wellness. Reducing activity on Facebook or monitoring time spent on smartphones are examples she cites of practicing digital wellness.
Digital Wellness and Sleep
Getting adequate and proper sleep is important for both our physical and mental health. When we’re asleep, our bodies are working to keep us healthy by boosting our immunity, helping our muscles recover, preserving our memories, and repairing our heart and blood vessels, to name a few of the many vital processes that occur during periods of rest. According to Petrozziello, “Poor sleep is linked to ADHD, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and depression in the long-term.”
The use of technology, especially right before bed, can have a detrimental effect on sleep. Daniel DeBaun, a telecom engineer and EMF radiation expert on digital wellness for sleep, says “Technology can affect sleep in many more ways than you might think, and might be a primary reason that you have trouble falling asleep, trouble staying asleep, and may wake up feeling irritable and not well-rested.”
Technology impairs our sleep in multiple ways — one of which is the content we’re finding online, from news to social media. “Upsetting headlines can promote stress response and a negative mindset before bed, which can lead to rumination, worry, difficulty falling asleep and bad dreams. Well-crafted news feeds can lead to scrolling endlessly and delaying going to bed, decreasing available hours for sleep,” says Tina Wilston, a licensed psychotherapist.
The devices themselves also contribute to poor sleep. According to Wilston, “Electromagnetic Frequencies (EMFs) coming from our computers, cell phones, TVs, and more can affect our bodies at a cellular level. Science has shown several adverse effects, including effects on cerebral blood flow, sleep, and fatigue.” Our phones also emit blue light, which can have an adverse effect on sleep.
Blue Light and Sleep
Blue light is a part of the visible light spectrum that has both the shortest wavelength and highest energy. It comprises about one-third of the visible light spectrum and is found in natural light — sunlight is actually the greatest source of blue light. However, blue light can also be replicated artificially in lightbulbs, TV screens, smartphones, computers, and tablets.
In its natural form, blue light is vitally important to our health. It helps regulate our circadian rhythm (natural sleep-wake cycle), keeps us awake, and improves brain cognition. Though our devices only produce a fraction of the blue light found in natural light, exposure to blue light at night can have detrimental effects. (1)
When we overexposure ourselves to blue light, we throw off our bodies’ circadian rhythm. According to DeBaun, “Blue light disrupts our circadian rhythm by delaying the release of melatonin, and decreasing the overall production of melatonin.” Though melatonin doesn’t make you sleep, there are increased levels of the hormone in your blood at night, and it helps to regulate your sleep-wake cycle. (2)
Parents should be especially careful of their children’s nighttime blue light exposure. According to one study, children who watched television before bed got an average of 30 minutes less sleep, and those who used smartphones before bedtime got an average of an hour less sleep. The study also found that these children were more likely to be overweight or obese than children who didn’t use technology before bed. (3)
Technology and Mental Health
“We often have unlimited access to our devices at all times, and this can take a real toll on our mental health and well-being,” says Wilston. Technology can have a negative effect on our mental health when it takes the place of human interaction. Though it may feel like we’re interacting with others on social media, we’re losing the benefits of in-person communication. Interpersonal relationships are important for our mental health because they create a sense of connection and community that can’t be replicated digitally.
Smart devices also lead to poorer brain cognition. They reduce our ability to problem solve by providing quick and easy answers. When we always have the answers at our fingertips, our brains don’t have to do the work to figure things out. (4)
Dr. Dunn highlights the importance of unplugging, or taking a “digital detox” for mental health. “Digital detox gives you an opportunity to socially interact with people without any distraction. Quitting digital devices for quite some time can reduce anxiety and depression that originates from the constant use of devices and social media platforms,” she says.
Tips for Digital Wellness
If you use technology before bed, you’re not alone. According to Petrozziello, there are lots of reasons people stay up late on their devices. “People are seeking ‘revenge’ on their own sleep because they are missing out on personal time during the day and need to feel a sense of control over their schedule,” she says. Another reason could be not wanting to start the next day, and “procrastinating” sleep by staying up online. Stress caused by circumstances out of our control (like a pandemic) can also cause us to stay up late with worry or apprehension, according to Petrozziello.
Though it can be difficult to break the habit of using your phone before bed, there are a few simple changes you can make that can make the process a lot easier. Take a look at some expert recommendations below.
Electronics in the Bedroom
According to our experts, making a “sleep sanctuary” is key to getting a great night’s sleep. Here are a few recommendations:
- Try not to use electronics one to two hours before bedtime. Although two hours is likely ideal, Dr. Samantha Gaies of NY Health Hypnosis & Integrative Therapy says that sometimes two hours is not realistic, so she tells her patients to stop using devices one hour before bedtime. If you do use electronics closer to bedtime, be sure to use blue light blocking glasses and/or keep your phone as far away from your eyes as possible.
- Don’t keep your phone under your pillow. Place it on the other side of the room or in another room to decrease EMF exposure.
- Put your phone on airplane mode or Do Not Disturb and make sure that all alarms (other than your wakeup alarm) are turned off. This will help reduce disruptions.
- If you can, keep your work from home space and all electronics outside your bedroom. “This is actually a principle of Feng Shui!” says DeBaun. Devices like phones, tablets, computers, and even WiFi routers can affect your sleep patterns, so it’s best to keep them as far away from your sleep place as possible. Dr. Gaies points out that due to so many people working from home these days, keeping the office out of the bedroom might be difficult to do. So, she suggests physically moving devices out of the bedroom at the end of the day as an alternative.
Sleep hygiene refers to actions and lifestyle habits that promote healthy sleep. There’s a number of ways in which we can improve our sleep hygiene. Tina Wilston provided this sleep hygiene checklist:
- Maintain a regular sleep routine
- Avoid daytime naps that are longer than 10-20 minutes
- Don’t stay in bed awake for more than 15-20 minutes
- In the mornings, get out of bed right away — certainly before scrolling on your phone
- The bed should be for sleep and sex only: Don’t watch TV, use the computer, or read in bed.
- Do not consume caffeine after 2pm
- Cut back on alcohol or other substances that may affect your quality of sleep
- Make sure you’re breathing clean, fresh air
- Avoid exercise three hours before bedtime
- Hide the clock
- Have a comfortable pre-bedtime routine
In addition to these actionable tips, it’s also important to have a bedroom that makes you feel relaxed and comfortable. That includes having a mattress that suits your body type and preferred sleep position.
If you’ve found yourself feeling addicted to technology, you might want to consider a digital detox. “A digital detox refers to the time duration when a person consciously does not use digital devices and the internet such as smartphones, computers, and social media platforms,” says Dr. Dunn. A digital detox doesn’t have to mean going cold turkey — you can simply choose not to use your phone one day a week or for a certain period of time during the day. You can also practice a digital detox by deleting apps from your phone that you know you spend too much time on.
Dr. Gaies says that the biggest culprit of wasted time for her patients is Instagram. She often tells them to log in for work or pleasure on their laptops, but she says that deleting the app is their best defense against mindless scrolling.
A digital detox can have a positive effect on your mental health by reducing the anxiety that comes with constant connectivity and improving your real-life relationships, says Petrozziello. She also says a detox is a good way to assess whether or not you have a real addiction to technology that you should seek professional help in treating.
Though it may seem daunting to start a total digital detox, Dr. Dunn suggests a few simple steps to reduce your technology usage.
- Schedule time limits: Schedule technology-free time and stay away from phones while eating meals. Schedule technology-free activities i.e., outdoor/indoor games, exercises, yoga, or meditation.
- Use print media: Use non-digital media such as books, newspapers, and even pen and paper to draw.
- Turn off apps/monitor phone usage: There are settings in your phone that can help you control your overall technology use by locking you out of social media apps or tracking your screen time.
Though it can be useful to remove technology from your sleep space, there are a few apps that can improve your sleep experience. Take a look at a few that we recommend:
- Sleepbot: This Android app monitors your sleep and lets you calculate your sleep over 10-day periods. The app creates graphs that include trends, average sleep length, and sleep/wake times.
- FitBit One: If you have a FitBit bracelet, you can download this app on your smartphone. It will track all your movements in bed, including snoring, switching position, and when you’re most active.
- Calm: This app aims to improve sleep by offering users bedtime stories, nature sounds, sleep soundscapes, relaxing music, and sleep meditations.
- Headspace: This meditation app aims to improve sleep by offering guided meditations, articles on sleep health, and mindfulness techniques.
Last Word From Sleepopolis
Digital wellness is like any other type of wellness: it takes time and dedication to achieve. I hope that this guide can help you improve your relationship with technology, which in turn will improve your physical and mental health. Remember, we aren’t experts, and this guide shouldn’t take the place of advice from your healthcare professional.
- Barnett, M. B. (2019). Is blue light from your cell phone, TV bad for your health? UC Davis Health. Published. https://health.ucdavis.edu/health-news/newsroom/is-blue-light-from-your-cell-phone-tv-bad-for-your-health/2019/05
- Fuller, Lehman, Hicks, Novick, C. F. E. L. S. H. M. B. N. (2017). Bedtime Use of Technology and Associated Sleep Problems in Children. Global Pediatric Health. Published. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5669315/
- Harvard Medical School. (2020). Blue Light has a Dark Side. Harvard Health Publishing. Published. https://www.google.com/url?q=https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/blue-light-has-a-dark-side&sa=D&source=editors&ust=1623166127442000&usg=AOvVaw0NDfjUhbk7yA8NcuRa14ew
- Kaufer, D. K. (2020). Your Brain on SmartPhone. TheWell. Published. https://thewell.unc.edu/2020/10/08/your-brain-on-smartphone/