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Three Ways Smartphones are Ruining Your Sleep and Relationships

Article at-a-glance:

  • More than 70% of adults now own a smartphone or tablet computer.
  • Smartphone use changes brain chemistry, which affects our mood and our sleep. And the effects can be devastating for your health.
  • This article is based one of Dr. Neustadt’s Facebook Live videos. In addition to reading this article, you should watch the video and follow us on Facebook.

by Dr. John Neustadt

More than 70% of adults now own a smartphone or tablet computer. Those incredible little devices have revolutionized our daily lives. In our uber-connected world at the touch of a button, you can learn about anything in history you want, or if you want to learn about a symptom you may be having, or natural approaches to the cold or the flu. It’s in the palm of your hand, day or night.

Smartphones are small computers, and the technology that we carry around in our pockets or purses are more incredibly powerful—more powerful than the first supercomputer. The ability for us to have access to all of that information and knowledge, to be able to check movie times and buy movie tickets or check on availability in a restaurant and make restaurant reservations, just with a few taps of our fingers is incredible.

But, there’s a downside to this technology that we all need to be aware of. And if you’ve made health a priority, which I hope you have, total health means not just exercising, and not just eating healthy. Those are important. But total health also means understanding the impacts technology has on your health and making sure you address those for yourself and with your children.

We now know that the direct impacts of technology and smartphones on our brain chemistry creates changes in hormones. It can change the amount of hormones produced and can deplete hormones, which affect our mood and our sleep cycles. And that can have some pretty damaging impacts on our health.

1. Addicted to the feel-good hormone

When you’re working on a smartphone or a tablet and you’re tapping away, and scrolling, and swiping, it actually gives you a hit of dopamine. It increases the secretion of dopamine in the brain. Dopamine is a feel-good hormone. And, in fact, dopamine is one of the hormones that’s impacted by addiction with amphetamines including cocaine.

Research has shown using smartphones create behaviors that are just like addictions. And, I know for myself, I’ve experienced that. There have been times where I felt addicted to my smartphone or tablet. Where I’ve compulsively grabbed it because felt anxious by simply not having checked in with it. That could be the dopamine talking; that compulsive behavior to have that hit of dopamine.

2. Deprived of melatonin

If you work on your tablet or your smartphone in bed at night and you’re staring at the screen, we now know that that interaction in the evening decreases your ability of your brain to secrete melatonin. Melatonin is a hormone that helps regulate sleep and is the trigger that starts to put you to sleep. It also helps modulate your circadian rhythms. That is your energy and your rhythm of day and night.

A 2015 clinical trial showed just how damaging these devices can be to our health. The researchers studied the effects of eBooks (“light emitting device”, which includes tablets, smartphones and eBook). They discovered that using a device before bed decreased melatonin more than 55%. The effects on how volunteers slept and their physical function the next day were alarming. It took volunteers an additional 10 minutes to fall asleep compared with people who were reading an old-fashioned paper book before bed. E-book participants felt sleepier the next morning and it took them hours longer to fully “wake up” and attain the same level of alertness than in the printed book condition.

Working on your tablet or your smartphone in bed at night can induce difficulty falling asleep and insomnia. And then what happens? You wake up tired. And, when we’re tired, what do we do? We may want to grab starchy or sugary food to get a quick little hit, so we start craving that. There’s blood sugar regulation issues that can occur with fatigue. There are hormone regulation issues that can be problems. But, also what happens is you can find yourself reaching for that smartphone again to get that hit of feel-good dopamine hormone.

As an aside, if you’re struggling with sleep, NBI’s Sleep Relief can help.

3. Avoiding what’s uncomfortable

It’s important to understand the real-world biochemical and health effects that all this connectivity and instant access to information is having on us. But, it can also have damaging social effects. How many times have you been out to dinner or hanging out with your family or friends, and you get a little bored, and you reach for your smartphone, and you start scrolling to kill your boredom. Or, you’re there in a group and its just been a while since you’ve actually looked at your phone. You start feeling maybe a little anxious, or you just feel a compulsion, a need, which really isn’t a need. It’s a desire to check in.

Our day-to-day interactions with other people are effected by our use of technology. We can use technology as an avoidance mechanism to take us out of uncomfortable situations, but it also keeps us from dealing with them. It can reduce the spontaneity and the spontaneous interactions that we have with other people. It can put a wall of technology between us and other people and reduce the emotional connectivity in those relationships.

Having relationships on Facebook or other social media platforms can be phenomenal. There are a lot of people we know who have been helped by connecting with other people on Facebook. Who have been able to assist others in certain times of needs or crises or provide a perspective or emotional support. But, that’s very different from one-on-one human interactions which we all crave and we all need for total health.

So, my challenge for you is to put some limits on technology. Schedule time where you’re going to just take a block of time and check your email. And, in fact, habits of really highly successful people show that that’s actually what they do. They’re going to spend a block of time checking email, then they go and do other things.

And, importantly, put the phone away at night. Make your bedroom a device-free zone. It could help you connect with your partner better, it can also help you sleep better. Make bedroom about sleep and connecting, and make it free of technology. Your health will benefit and your relationships can benefit as well.

But perhaps just as important—or maybe even more importantly—children are being impacted negatively by technology. Research has shown that children will model the behavior of the parents and what they see. So model good behavior for your kids so they can grow up healthy, and balanced, and have good interactions.

And when you put your phone down, you can have better interactions with them as well. Get back to playing games, connecting cooking together as a family. These are things that, if we talk about health, and making health a focus, these are important aspects of total health beyond just physical health. Yes, there’s a physical health component to technology that’s important. But there’s an emotional component to health that technology can both enhance by connecting with people, but also can hamper and keep you from being totally healthy. Set limits for yourself so that you control the technology and it’s not controlling you.

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Anderson M. Technology Device Ownership: 2015.  Pew Research Center. Accessed April 19, 2018. [Article]

Chang AM, Aeschbach D, Duffy JF, Czeisler CA. Evening use of light-emitting eReaders negatively affects sleep, circadian timing, and next-morning alertness.Proc Natl Acad Sci USA.2015;112(4):1232-1237. [Article]

Stibel J. Why you’re addicted to your phone … and what to do about it. USA Today. 2017; Accessed April 19, 2018. [Article]

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