Studies have shown time and again that our addiction to screens is having negative repercussions on our health – especially when it comes to sleep hygiene.
Whether you're scrolling through your Insta feed, watching YouTube videos, or even reading on an e-reader, interacting with technology before bedtime increases the release of the stress hormone cortisol in your brain. Not only does long-term over-production of cortisol affect metabolism, weight gain, and mood, on a short-term basis, cortisol makes us more alert, inhibiting the production of melatonin, a hormone that's necessary to help us fall asleep.
Sleep is essential for good health, and yet one National Sleep Foundation study found that 90 percent of Americans use technology within an hour before bedtime at last a few nights a week. I decided to fully commit to this recommendation and see what happened.
Before I started this experiment, I thought I already had pretty good sleep hygiene (thus my commitment to stay away from screens for two hours before bed, instead of the recommended one). I don’t have a television in my room. I work for myself, and I work a lot, but I tend to turn off my computer before dinner. I've always been an avid reader, and I'm in the habit of reading at least a chapter or two of a (paper) book before going to sleep. And while I’ve been known to scroll through Insta, I don’t usually spend too much time on my phone, especially in bed.
I also generally have an easy time falling asleep. I'm close with a lot of insomniacs, including one of my best friends and my sister. They often complain about having a hard time falling asleep, lying awake for hours, no matter what supplements and sleep aids they try. I've never been able to empathize with their plight: I tend to konk out the second my head hits the pillow.
All in all, I thought this experiment was going to be a breeze.
Boy, was I wrong.
During this experiment, I kept a sleep log, a tool recommended by many sleep experts. Through logging my sleep and bedtime routine, I noticed a few intriguing things about my own sleep hygiene.
One implicit element of this experiment was that I needed to have a bedtime. I’m usually pretty good about going to bed early (mostly because I really, really like sleeping), but knowing that I had to put down my phone two hours before bed meant that I needed to decide what time I was going to bed in advance.
Picking a bedtime meant that I began winding down my day far earlier than I usually would have. I found it easier to do the things that I know are good for me but that I’m often too lazy to do at night, like write in my journal, meditate, and take my vitamins. This stemmed firstly from the fact that I was still alert enough to complete these tasks and from the fact that kicking back in front of a screen just wasn't an option.
Where’s the Clock?
Perhaps the most surprising part of this whole experiment was realizing how much I use my phone without even thinking about it. Several times, I caught myself reached for my phone to check the time or to look something up on my calendar for the next day, and while I stopped myself, it definitely made me realize how often I'm on my phone, even briefly, in the evenings.
I’ve long claimed that watching television in the evening is an isolating activity, even if you do it with someone else. But I was surprised to find during my experiment that this isn't always the case, and that sometimes, my desire to stay away from screens kept me more isolated.
One evening during the experiment, my sister and I decided to have a spa night (complete with moisturizing masks), and as is our habit, we put on an episode of Gilmore Girls in the background. I avoided the screen and just listened, but I realized that I was missing out on something that could have brought us together.
Anyone who knows me well will find it impossible to imagine that I could possibly read more during this experiment than I usually do. I've always been an avid reader, and I'm a frequent patron of my local lending library. Reading is my favorite way to wind down before bed.
But during this experiment, I realized I don't read nearly as much as I think I do – probably about a half hour or so on average. While I won't claim that I read for the full two hours before bed during this experiment, I did read for at least an hour every evening before going to sleep, and I loved it.
I didn't notice an improvement in my sleep during this experiment, but as someone who already has an easy time falling asleep, that wasn't terribly surprising. What did surprise me, however, was the beneficial effect on my mindfulness.
Not only was I more mindful in the evenings, taking the time to do things that matter to me, but my evening screen aversion carried over into the morning. Instead of reaching for my phone the moment I wake up, I find myself reaching for my journal or a book, or even just lying awake for a moment and taking stock of what the day ahead will hold. It helped me to slow down and to have a break from the urgency that usually governs my life, and while I can't promise I'll be staying away from screens for two hours before bed every night, I'll definitely be more mindful of when – and above all, why – I reach for my phone in the future.
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