Sleep and tech don't mix

01:19, Jun 05 2012
sleeping laptop
LOW-TECH SLEEP: The answer may be to remove all digital technology from the bedroom.

You're lying wide awake. You reach over to your mobile phone; a flash of light is emitted as you press the home button. It's 1am.

You say to yourself, "If I go to sleep now, I'll still get six hours' sleep". You check your phone again at 2.30am. Then 4am, 5.30am and finally your alarm goes off at 7am. And you're sure you haven't slept a wink all night.

If you're a troubled sleeper, you'll know this routine all too well.

My bad sleeping habits started a year ago while living with earthquakes.

I'm not the only one – my GP once told me that our country all but ran out of a certain blue sleeping pill because it was being prescribed so much in Christchurch in February 22's wake.

As aftershocks lessened, I thought my bad sleeping would too. But as 2012 rolled on, I was still having trouble sleeping, still having the occasional night without any sleep at all. Or did I?


Sleep doctors call the continual checking of clocks throughout the night "time stamping". The brain associates each clock check – 1am, 2.30am, 4am and so forth – with not getting any sleep between those periods.

Actually, a person normally is sleeping (perhaps very lightly) and it is a psychological association that convinces us otherwise.

After being on and off a few prescription and herbal sleeping medications, I decided it was time to see a sleep doctor. I'd been hesitant for months; thinking it'd involve experiments and monitoring of my habits, and a fairly expensive financial investment. Or, more sceptically, airy-fairy meditation techniques.

One visit to a sleep clinic was all it took. My doctor, a former GP, first sat down and discussed the things in my life that would be affecting my sleep – namely around a psychological dependence on taking some form of sleeping pill.

Then things got interesting. I was told to make changes to the way I use technology in the hours before bedtime.

Time stamping isn't the only thing that hinders sleep.

The good doc explained to me the importance of not using my laptop or mobile phone for at least an hour before I hit the hay (something I did frequently before bed, and even during the middle of the night when I couldn't sleep).

These devices emit artificial light that suppresses release of melatonin, the sleep-promoting hormone.

This suppression enhances alertness, shifting circadian rhythms by several hours, making it difficult to switch off and slumber.

What about TV, you ask? There are two reasons why television before bedtime isn't quite the same.

The first is because the television is (normally) placed much further from the eye than a computer or mobile phone screen. The second, more importantly, is that TVs are passive, while computers are interactive. TV doesn't excite the brain; it relaxes it.

When you use an interactive device close to your eyes, the images from the screen can be held in the brain long after the device is turned off, thus making it all the more challenging to block out the world, and nod off at a reasonable hour.

A 2011 poll by America's National Sleep Foundation found that 95 per cent of people reported that most nights a week, they surfed the internet, texted or watched TV during the hour before trying to sleep.

Not surprisingly, 63 per cent of the surveyed group also reported sleep deprivation. What are the chances that the 63 per cent was largely made up of late-night texters and web surfers? The experience of this writer would lead quite firmly towards a correlation.

I took the good doc's advice. I didn't just stop using all technology after 10pm, I removed all technology from my bedroom.

I bought a tiny little analogue clock (digital clock radios are terribly taunting) to wake me up instead of my phone's alarm, and it's placed on the other side of the room.

My phone now charges in the living room, so not only can I not time stamp with it, but I also can't check any emails or text messages that arrive during the night.

There are many other factors that contribute to sleeplessness. Heat. Caffeine. Stress. Fear of aftershocks.

But for me, it seems technology had become the major contributor after getting on a bad sleep cycle post-quake. How am I sure of this?

Since I went cold turkey on technology before bed, I've been sleeping like a baby almost every night.

Lee Suckling is a Christchurch freelance journalist.

The Press