Breaking News: Checking Instagram 23 times per night may affect sleep quality.

I used to be the best sleeper in the world. When I was little, I could fall asleep anywhere, including in the bleachers at high school basketball games amidst all the cheering and stomping and sneakers squeaking that bounced off the gymnasium walls. My mom marveled at my ability and was very pleased I hadn’t inherited her poor sleep gene.

Fast forward thirty years and it turns out that perhaps my mom’s poor sleep gene is hereditary and man alive, do I have it! The problems really began about two years ago when my elderly dog stopped being able to navigate the stairs to our bedroom. I became a very light sleeper so that I could listen for Henry since she needed to go out often during the night. I have heard a similar issue often befalls new parents who are constantly listening for their babies to wake up. I am also blessed with a brain that just won’t quit. I wouldn’t call them racing thoughts, but there sure are a lot of them and they really like to get deep into how things work between the hours of 2 – 6 a.m. Sometimes I wake up to use the bathroom in the middle of the night with “Never Gonna Give You Up” in my head and then it’s all over for me.

I’ve tried plenty of things to help me sleep from melatonin, to counting backward from 500 to focus my thoughts, to investing in a king-size bed, all to varying degrees of success. I’ve spent a lot of time figuring out what I can do to get better sleep, but I’ve never really thought about what I shouldn’t do. I have recently begun to look at how I interact with my phone, and specifically with social media, to help me re-learn how to focus my concentration on deep work. I was struck to realize that my phone use was not only affecting my work, but likely also my sleep.

In the Atlantic article “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation” Jean M. Twenge focuses on the ill effects of smartphone use on “iGen,” children born between 1995 and 2012 who have never lived in a world without smartphones. She states a myriad of troubling statistics about the increase of depression in this generation which she attributes to their constant connection to their devices. While I am well outside of this age group, I could relate to her statements about the correlation of using a phone before bed and lack of quality sleep. Instagram is the last thing I look at before going to bed and wondering if anyone has liked or commented on a photo keeps my brain occupied while I should be trying to wind-down for the night. I almost always take my phone with me when I go downstairs to let the dog out in the middle of the night, checking social media and my email.

When we were asked to run a data collection detox experiment this week, I knew immediately that the subject of my detox would be phone use at night. Twenge states in her article that “significant effects on both mental health and sleep time appear after two or more hours a day on electronic devices.” On an average weekday I am on my phone seven hours per day, and that doesn’t account for time on the computer, my iPad, or in front of the TV! Even though the Scientific American article “The Kids are Alright” suggests that Twenge’s findings may be overstated, I figured that given my own poor sleep habits, I didn’t really have anything to lose.

The Experiment: No phone use between 10 p.m. and 7 a.m.

My initial thought would be to put my phone on the charger downstairs, but that made me feel pretty anxious – a first sign that perhaps I really do need this detox after all! I often turn on Hulu and listen to a show when I am having trouble sleeping and I wasn’t sure if not having that option would actually make my sleep situation worse. Not having a diversion when my brain starts playing on max volume is a recipe for sleeping disaster. I opted to use the downtime feature on my phone which makes you confirm that you want to use an app between the hours of 10 p.m. and 7 a.m. I would put my phone down at 10 p.m. and not pick it up again until the next morning, with the small caveat that if I needed to put on a show to help me sleep, I would allow that.

My data collection methods would be three-fold: I would keep a pen and paper beside my bed to jot down notes throughout the night such as what time I woke up and for what reason; I journaled daily, both before going to bed and when I woke up, to record my bedtime, how often I awoke, if I was up for long, and my mood throughout the night; and finally I used the screen time app on my phone to analyze the metrics of how much and how often I was using social media throughout the night.

The Findings: Tech can’t help you stay away from tech.

Computer programmer Ramsay Brown has developed an app called “Space” that creates a 12 second delay when you try to open any social media. Brown told Anderson Cooper on the 60-Minutes segment titled Brain Hacking that the Apple Store rejected the app, stating that “they did not want us to give out this thing that was gonna make people less stuck on their phones.” And that makes perfect sense, really. Tech companies want your attention – that is the root of all of their money and power. They certainly don’t want anyone creating something that will keep you from mindlessly scrolling Facebook. Even the downtime setting on my iPhone lets you ignore the program for one minute, fifteen minutes, or all night if you want to. There is no tech that will help you stay away from tech. You need to make that decision and then make the very conscious effort to change your habits.

Sleep data graphic with each box denoting one hour between 10 p.m. and 7 a.m.

My first night avoiding my phone was the best sleep I have gotten in a long time. I read, I slept for almost 6.5 hours in a row which is basically unheard of for me, and I awoke feeling refreshed and happy. I did find myself having to be conscious about not reaching for my phone, but was able to easily avoid the temptation. As the week progressed, I found myself feeling those urges less and less, but I also found myself being more flexible about the 10 p.m. stop time. I did find that once I could convince myself to put the phone down, it was not that hard to leave it down, and that getting out of the habit of mindlessly reaching for my phone was not that difficult. Finally, I have realized that using my technology responsibly actually can help me sleep better. I was awake for nearly an hour between 5:30 – 6:30 on Tuesday because I couldn’t quiet my thoughts no matter how many times I tried counting backwards from 500. When I finally gave in and put on Hulu, I was asleep before the end of the first 20 minute episode of Forensic Files. It has been interesting to put real intentions behind how I am using my technology and to see where it is serving to help or to hinder my well-being.

Final Thoughts: Setting intentions to form healthier habits.

Just as Lydia Denworth states in “The Kids are Alright, “anxiety and panic of the effects of new technology date back to Socrates, who bemoaned the then new tradition of writing things down for fear it would diminish the power of memory.” Perhaps, as Jean Twenge alludes, people are more depressed now, less healthy, sleeping more poorly, and perhaps that does correlate to the rise of smartphone use in America. But correlation does not imply causation, and I can think of about 10,000 things that I personally would have to be depressed about including graduating from college in the midst of the largest financial crisis since the Great Depression, being in a huge amount of debt as I strive for middle-class comfort, living through a forever war that has become so commonplace that people don’t even think about it anymore, or perhaps it’s the fact that climate change has led to a the deadly viral pandemic, hurricanes, tornadoes, and raging wildfires all at the same time! Who knows? But what I do know is that I have spent too much of my life not examining the why of things – why am I happy or unhappy, successful or unsuccessful. Chalking it all up to luck of the draw in order to assuage that creeping guilt that perhaps it’s my own fault.

If smartphones can be linked, even tangentially, to poor sleep habits, and not getting enough sleep has been scientifically proven to cause anxiety (✓), depression (✓), weight gain (✓), compromised thinking (✓) and a number of other health issues, then it’s time for me to explore why I don’t sleep well instead of just chalking it up to environment or heredity.

I plan on continuing the use the downtime function on my phone, and to self-correct when I start to be wishy washy on the rules. I also plan on exploring other features such as the Calm app to help me unwind before bed or get back to sleep if I wake up in the middle of the night. Finally, I will keep a sleep journal over the next month to see if staying away from my phone at night actually does increase the amount and quality of my sleep, and if I can feel any real-life advantages of it.

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