Surprising study finds screen use before bed can actually help you sleep
A pair of recent studies have upended the common belief that watching screens before going to sleep disturbs the quality or duration of your slumber. The research indicates some people may actually get more rest by watching something before going to sleep, depending on how they use certain digital devices.
Conventional wisdom tells us we should disconnect from all screens before we go to bed. It is believed all kinds of digital media consumption can disrupt our sleep patterns but devices are so pervasive in the 21st century it is unlikely many of us are abstaining from screen time for an hour before sleeping.
Many studies over the past decade have found digital screen time before bed can be associated with poor sleep. However, most research presented device use as a single homogenous activity, often ignoring the nuanced and complicated variety of ways we actually use digital media. And most studies on the subject utilize self-reported sleep diaries, which can be notoriously unreliable.
Netflix and sleep?
A new study published in the Journal of Sleep Research has attempted to tease out some of the different ways we use media around bedtime and how it influences our sleep quality. The research recruited 58 adults and tasked them with self-reporting their media use the hour before going to sleep every night. Alongside what kind of media they were consuming (television, podcast, book, etc.), they recorded where they were using the media (in bed or the lounge room) and whether they were multitasking their usage (for example, scrolling through their phone while watching television).
The researchers also trained the cohort to use an electroencephalography (EEG) machine at home. This allowed for more detailed insights into sleep quality unlike many prior studies that relied on self-reported measures of sleep.
Co-author on the study, Lindsay Hahn from the University at Buffalo, says the main focus of this particular study was to investigate how different types of traditional media influence sleep. So instead of looking at active engagement with devices, this research was interested in whether passively watching or listening to something directly before slumber disrupted sleep quality.
“We intentionally looked only at what you might call ‘entertainment media,’” Hahn said. “Despite social media getting a lot of attention both in research circles and in popular culture, American time-use surveys show that people still spend a lot of time with television, music and books.”
The results were surprising. The researchers found sleep quality (as measured by EEG readings tracking total time in REM and deep sleep) was unaffected by media use in the hour before bed. But even more unexpected, the researchers found total sleep time was actually improved with media use prior to slumber. Of course, the devil is in the details, and Hahn pointed out sleep can be improved or harmed depending on the type of media use.
“We found that media use just prior to the onset of sleep is associated with an earlier bedtime and more total sleep time, as long as the duration of use is relatively short and you’re not multitasking, like texting or simultaneously scrolling social media,” said Hahn. “Watching a streaming service or listening to a podcast before bed can serve as a passive, calming activity that improves aspects of your sleep.”
While briefly watching television in bed was found to improve overall sleep duration, the benefits quickly dissipated when media use extended to long periods of time. Lead author on the study, Morgan Ellithorpe from the University of Delaware, said the longer people used media in bed, the more it led to negative effects on sleep.
"If you are going to use media, like watching TV or listening to music, before bed, keep it a short, focused session and you are unlikely to experience any negative outcomes in your sleep that night," said Ellithorpe.
The social media sleep study
Another recent study, published late last year in the journal Sleep Medicine, investigated the effect of social media use on sleep quality. That research used a more traditional form of sleep tracking, recruiting 32 young volunteers to spend four nights in a sleep laboratory.
The first night was dubbed an “adaptation night,” serving to help subjects get used to sleeping in the lab with EEG electrodes attached to their head. The other three nights involved a neutral condition night (serving as a control), a “relax” experiment where the subjects listened to a 30-minute muscle relaxation exercise, and a social media intervention where they were tasked with using social media on a smartphone for 30 minutes.
The study found using social media for 30 minutes before sleeping had no effect on any measures of sleep quality compared to control conditions. The researchers did, however, detect significant improvements to objective and subjective sleep measures on the night the volunteers listened to a 30-minute relaxation exercise.
The unsurprising conclusion was the recommendation that people wanting to improve their sleep quality should avoid social media use and explore pre-sleep relaxation or meditation. The study also indicated that although brief social media use didn’t seem to intrinsically effect sleep quality or duration it could still delay one’s sleep onset, leading to shorter overall sleep time if wake-up times are locked in with work schedules.
“Delaying bedtime due to prolonged media use might have additional impairing effects on sleep and on the duration of sleep going beyond the findings of this study, especially if we consider when wake-up times are externally determined by school hours or working schedules,” the social media sleep study concluded. “Thus, while the sole activity of using social media itself does not appear to have strong detrimental effects on sleep architecture, it is still recommendable to limit the use of any media activity at bedtime in order to get a sufficient amount of restorative sleep.”
These two studies compliment a larger investigation Andrew Przybylski at the University of Oxford published in 2018 that looked at the self-reported relationship between sleep and screen use in children. Przybylski’s study broadly focused on the correlation between total daily screen time and sleep duration in children.
Looking at data from more than 50,000 children the research found little difference in overall sleep time when comparing those who mostly abstain from daily use of digital technology to those who spend around eight hours each day in front of a screen.
"The findings suggest that the relationship between sleep and screen use in children is extremely modest," Przybylski said in 2018. "Every hour of screen time was related to 3 to 8 fewer minutes of sleep a night."
Pete Etchells, professor of psychology at Bath Spa University, didn’t work on any of the new studies but calls the findings “fascinating.” He says they affirm the complexity of digital media use on sleep quality and are a pertinent reminder of the need for more detailed research into the myriad of ways we use digital technology.
“The take-home message here is that the relationship between screen-based media use and sleep isn’t a simple one, and we’re only really just getting to grips with understanding it,” said Etchells. “This study is a good initial step in that journey.”
Despite these studies indicating some screen uses may not be harmful to sleep there has been plenty of recent research suggesting the opposite. From media use leading to poor sleep quality to digital media use reducing overall sleep time it is clear the science is struggling to reach a consensus on this complex topic.
Hahn says her team’s findings do indicate there may be some benefits to media use before sleep but of course that doesn’t mean staying up past midnight binge watching a show on Netflix will help you get a good night's sleep.
“These results show the potential benefits of media use and point to the possibility of interventions that allow for media use before bed in ways that improve rather than disrupt sleep,” Hahn added. “People tend to worry a lot about media use affecting their health or well-being, but our findings repeatedly show that media use can be good for us, too."
Source: University at Buffalo