How Tech Affects Sleep

By Karen Goldfarb

The 21st century has brought us into a world of whirring, pinging sounds that constantly remind us that something might need to be done, someone important might be trying to reach us, or perhaps worst of all, that someone, somewhere else in the world might be having a better time.

That anxiety— known as FOMO (fear of missing out) – has been described by the New York Times as a “blend of anxiety, inadequacy and irritation that can flare up while skimming social media.” That anxiety – and sense of constantly being on alert – can bleed into our lives, which in turn can affect important aspects of the way we function in our waking lives.

Beware the Blue Light

Dr. Larry Rosen is a researcher at California State University, Dominguez Hills, and the author of “iDisorder: Understanding Our Obsession With Technology and Overcoming Its Hold on Us.” He says use is changing the way we sleep. Scientists have noted that the “blue light” from LED devices has altered our circadian rhythms, delaying the release of melatonin, reducing rapid eye movement sleep, and generally wreaking havoc with our sleep cycles.

“In our work, we found an interesting relationship between tech use in general and sleep,” says Rosen. “Two major issues – executive functioning or how well you make decisions, act reasonably, and anxiety – played a major role in the sleep process. Both led to increased technology use, which in turn led to more sleep problems.”     

Sleep and Memory

During a normal , little bursts of brain activity called “sleep spindles” generally occur during non-REM sleep, and last about half a second. Rosen says the spindle is responsible for many aspects of our mental acuity, including learning and memory. If you are not getting normal sleep cycles, then it is likely that this process will be diminished – which means that the work that your brain does at night to help cement the daily learning is disrupted.

“If you are not getting ‘good’ sleep, meaning having normal sleep cycles, then the brain is not able to do its process of synaptic rejuvenation, which includes consolidating what you have learned and pruning away irrelevant information,” Rosen said.

And it’s not just sleep that can be disturbed when technology enters the bedroom.”   “What I have seen is that some people spend more time interacting with their iPad or laptop than with their partners in bed,” says cognitive psychologist Robert Leahy. “Of course, this interferes with intimacy, communication and with sleep.

When one partner requests that the other turn off their device the other partner might get angry, defensive, and feel deprived of their fun, Leahy observes.

Finally, that sense of always being ‘on alert’ can create a sense of crisis – and relentless anxiety. “If you keep your cellphone by your bed, and keep yourself primed to respond to middle-of-the-night text messages, all bets are off on whether any of sleep’s critical functions – including memory and immune functions and insulin regulation – are being achieved,” says Harvard Professor Bob Stickgold. “It’s a whole new ballgame.”

Tags:  circadian rhythm Sleep Sleep Cycle Tech

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