Are smartphones making us insomniacs?

03:07, Jul 05 2013
BRAVE NEW YAWN: Are smart devices harming our sleep?

The internet has given us so much. It's plugged us into a limitless repository of information on any subject, it's enabled us to find out what's happening all over the world in real time, and it's given us access to an infinite library of cat videos.

What's more, the smartphone and tablet revolutions have taken made the internet almost ubiquitous. Now we can access those cat videos on the street, in bed, in the waiting room of the psychiatrist whom we're seeing because of our obsession with cat videos - just about anywhere we can get phone access.

But one thing the internet has not given us is better sleep. A prominent Australian researcher warned that the light generated by backlit smartphones and tablets can mess with our body clocks. Professor Shantha Rajaratnam of Monash University says that the effect is worst when it's shining close to our faces, which is precisely how we hold our phones and tablets.

While I gather some of the research underpinning this conclusion is fresh, I've been hearing this theory about our bodies interpreting screens as daylight for years. And I haven't yet been successful in acting on it, even though I often have difficulty getting to sleep.

When I can't sleep, I get bored, so of course, to allay the boredom, I pick up the phone that's charging by my bed and look at it. And it works brilliantly to quell my boredom, but quells what remaining sleepiness I have as well.

I'm sure most of us know the sensation of being physically tired and yet mentally alert from staring at a screen too long. That tension headache that feels like a vice is being applied to your forehead, the sense of pressure building up behind our eyes, the painful dryness of your eyeballs, and that haggard feeling while your mind keeps racing. You know it's unhealthy, but it's difficult to stop. That's precisely what it feels like after I've spent hours reading my phone screen - and it's worst of all in an otherwise darkened room.


Facebook can become tedious - when you're lying there late at night, you're predominantly looking at posts by friends holidaying overseas -  but Twitter provides a constant stream of information, much of it fascinating. After midnight Australian time, Twitter is busy in the US and UK, and news stories flit across the feed, tempting  me to read them and find out what's happening.

One of the biggest traps when I can't sleep is, strangely enough, Wikipedia. I'll often look at something because there's a news story on Twitter that makes me want to know more about another country's history, or some scientific phenomenon, or some forgotten piece of pop culture, and then I'll keep clicking on links within Wikipedia articles in a long chain, until I'm looking at something completely different.

I've just looked through the history on my phone's Wikipedia app, and in the last 48 hours, my Wiki reading has included the following: Arthur Boyd, the Phantom Zone prison dimension in the Superman comics, Tori Amos, Neil Gaiman, Les Misérables,  lactose intolerance, former South African President P.W. Botha, the humourist Danny Wallace, poker, Ecuador, the technical definition of a patent and Sonny Bono's time as the Mayor of Palm Springs.

Approximately 0% of these topics have any practical use, and probably fuel some fairly surreal dreams when I am finally able to sleep. For all I know, I may well have dreamed of a lactose-intolerant Tori Amos being trapped forever in the Phantom Zone.

And yes, I am honestly saying that these research missions have been preventing me from sleeping, even though I concede that this activity would have made the average person drift off in no time. My threshold for entertainment when on an insomniac Wiki-binge is astonishingly low. I once spent a solid hour reading the fake history of the various disputes within WWE ("kayfabe", I now know it's called), which is a form of quasi-entertainment in which I have absolutely no interest during daylight hours.

If wrestling wasn't distracting enough, emails drift in around the clock. Then there's the chatting. Every month, I seem to spend more time typing text messages to people who via Skype or Google Chat (I refuse to call it "Hangouts", despite their recent rebranding) or Whatsapp or LINE or Facebook Messenger or some other newfangled app.

The current phase of internet evolution seems designed to rip away those last few remaining shreds of the ability to concentrate that we have left by making it easy for people to interrupt us.

Nowadays, my phone barely even rings anymore. It's probably not even accurate to call it a phone anymore, when it's primarily a handheld computer. Star Trek's label of 'communicator' is probably more appropriate. And 'distractor' is more accurate still.

Smartphones are a wonderful antidote to boredom on the bus, or waiting at an airport, or indeed whenever you find yourself at a loss for something to do. But they're also a powerful antidote to sleep. If I want to sleep properly, what I will have will have to risk, ultimately, is a tedious period of lying there with my eyes closed before I can finally manage to sleep. And I'll have to embrace the notion that doing this is healthier than distracting myself with a gadget.

Somehow I'll have to convince myself that checking my email, or reading the latest tweets from Egypt, or replying to some random message from a friend in a different timezone, can wait until the morning. And if I can't do that, then I will simply have to banish my phone to another room when I need to sleep.

- Daily Life