Sleep and Technology

This post will be little more than a quick and dirty cut’n’paste job tonight, but the source article was just too good not to broadcast to a wider audience.  Appearing today in the online edition of our daily newspaper’s here in New Zealand, and written by a local freelance journalist who has lived through the regular sleep disturbance of earthquakes, the following article resonated with me for a couple of reasons.  And given the relatively regular “OMFG, it’s 3am and I can’t sleep so I have taken to Twitter” messages that are broadcast by many paleo-types, including those of us who should know far better, I’m picking the invasion of technology into the bedroom and the ease with which we dive into it, is a fairly common occurrence.

Unlike the author here, and seemingly most of the people in Christchurch, the earthquakes haven’t caused me too many issues as far as sleeping goes.  Sure, a good rattle in the night will cause me to wake up, but I tend to be of the mindset that I’ll take my chances and ride the quakes out in bed and deal with any consequences after (this is what I did with the Sept 2010 7.1 quake – by the time the early vibrations turned into 30 seconds in a tumble drier, there really wasn’t much point in trying to stand up and get under a door frame – I took shelter under my duvet and pillow).  But I do find it all too tempting to pick up the phone when I wake up, primarily to check the time in the first instance (time stamping as is referred to below), but also to check any messages that have come through overnight and to see who else might be lurking online – you just never know who might be there at 5am…

It is a shocker of a habit, and one which I should really take action on.  We have options as far as altering our nutrition to support different contexts, likewise with exercise, and we can either put ourselves in the sun or take ourselves out of the sun based on our needs.  But when it comes to sleep, we really only have one option – to sleep (we can perhaps kid ourselves that intravenous coffee might be the antidote for a lack of sleep, but we know it isn’t).  And we know that after a couple of nights of disturbed sleep, eating and activity begin to suffer – likewise, for me at least, our social adjustment.

A good reminder that while waking up during the night is a perfectly ‘paleo’, switching our brain on to update our sleep-deprived status, isn’t.

Sleep and tech don’t mix

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.



12 thoughts on “Sleep and Technology

  1. Pingback: Sleep and Technology | THAT PALEO GUY | Tech Buzzing

  2. Anna

    Installing the free f.lux software on the computer and setting it to activate at the local sunset time seemed to help quite a bit with ability to fall asleep after late evening computer time, though I know limiting my evening computer screen time is just as important if not more so (actually a certain family member’s predilection for playing a favorite computer strategy game on the family computer in the evening keeps me off my favorite computer many evenings, which means if I log in afterward to check email, the next day’s calendar events, etc. I too often stay online “catching up”, and that too often initiates a “second wind” and a severe delayed onset of sleep).

    On my side of our bedroom I use a digital alarm clock that projects the time onto the ceiling or high on the wall with a dim red color when the snooze button in pressed. A bright blue light illuminates the display panel on the front at the same time, but I keep that side turned to wall so that my eyes aren’t exposed directly to the blue light. While that still is “time-stamping” behavior, the softer red light doesn’t seem to affect my sleep as negatively as looking at the bright blue lit display does). Our bedroom landline ringer is set to not ring during sleeping hours – though we can faintly hear the landline set ringers and answering machine in other parts of the house unless we are in deep sleep. We don’t rarely keep our mobile phones in our bedroom, and we had to be really strict with our teenage son & his mobile phone – it’s strictly banned from his room at night, or else he doesn’t get any sleep, as the text notifications arrive all night long.

    When I can’t sleep for some reason (some physical discomfort, peri-menopause symptoms, mind won’t slow down and stop thinking, second wind, etc.), I leave the bedroom so I don’t disturb my husband’s sleep and going to the family room sofa. Sometimes I read until I’m sleepy then I go back to bed, but if that doesn’t work I set the TV on a PBS-type historical program on British royalty or something like that – the important thing is finding a program with an academic or professorial host with a droning voice & a really low volume setting (no offense to academic lecturers intended). Then I turn away from the screen, lay down, and close my eyes. The white noise seems to do the trick – before I know it, it’s morning.

    The bigger problem is when I fall asleep in front of the TV on the sofa in the early evening and then get up to get ready for bed – too often I get a second wind after the cat nap and then I’m *really* awake for many more hours. I’m trying to be more disciplined about getting things done and preparing for bed before I sit down to watching something on TV, so that if I get drowsy I can just go straight to bed. But even at 50 yoa the little kid in me still rebels a bit too much ;-).

    PS. Thanks very for the Christchurch rental housing tips in response to my query on an earlier post. Looks like we are going ahead with the sabbatical in Christchurch in 2013. Trying not to lose sleep over everything I need to do or arrange prior to our departure.

  3. Victoria

    I do love having F.lux on my computer to cut down the blue light after dark. I wish I could put it on my iPad with out jail-breaking it. I generally don’t use the kindle ap on my iPad at night for that reason and did notice I had trouble sleeping the other night when I read that instead of a book in bed. Could be coincidence…

    I’ve always kept my phone and computer in other rooms from where I sleep. I don’t want to be disturbed by my phone (though now I put it on silent except alarm and use it as an alarm- though it lives more than an arms reach from my bed), and also I just don’t keep technology in my room- it’s a place for rest. I’ve been known to get on the computer in the middle of the night, but it’s always when I’ve been tossing and turning for ages and finally give up hope of getting a proper sleep and actually get up and move to another room where my computer lives. Perhaps it would be best to abstain, but I have found that when things get really bad, I can sometimes quiet my mind better by spending some time online than lying in bed being frustrated that I’m not sleeping. It’s a mindful decision though- I have to actively get out of bed and move to another room, not just pick up the technology next to me.

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  5. Brad

    “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”.


    I used to suffer from terrible sleeping problems, so I can completely relate with the former insomniac in the article.

    The key for me is staying up until i am extremely sleepy. If i go to bed when i am only a little sleepy, then i find myself laying awake, possibly for hours and even all night. We get so conditioned to looking at the clock that we think, “it is 1am…i better go to sleep” (even though we may not be tired). We feel pressure to go to sleep because we think we always need the same amount of sleep each night, which i have found is not true.

  6. joeauerbach

    a: this is a great reminder about good sleep (a topic I am planning a post on soon)
    b: I’m pleased that you’re using the same theme as I am for your blog. makes me feel right at home.

  7. Pingback: Sleep and Technology | THAT PALEO GUY | Perfecting the Science of Sleep |

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  9. niceasiamies

    I was about to write on flux too, but several of you guys got into that already. Changing the warmth of the screen definitely is worth trying out, there are many interesting studies on the f.lux website worth checkint out. Harvard med school even blogges on the nightly light a little while ago. The blue light seems to be the most harmful, red being least harmful on melatonin secretion.

    Even an (jailbroken) iPhone can be “fluxed” which is something I plan to try soon. Setting the phone on anti-colors via 3 home button presses is one tactic too, but I totally get that the activating effect itself may be a problem. Lots of patching still might not get into the heart of the problem, granted.

    Also, living in 62 degrees north means that extreme seasonal changes in light itself are problematic for many people here. Living now here with only 4 hours of relatively bright night requires some really good black carpets and planning. During wintertime it’s exactly opposite, dim light for a few hours a day cause seasonal depressive symptoms in a lot of people. We are still tropical animals, not polar bears.

    So, do you think that living up north (or very south) is by itself adequate for added cancer risk, since even CDC has labeled shift work as a cancer risk? What are your thoughts, Jamie?

  10. chuckcurrie

    First: I think Mr. Suckling is very fortunate in his choice of doctors – I think the majority of doctors would have reached for the prescription pad instead of advising to turn off the computer.

    Second: There are a couple of bio-hackers that have interesting ideas on sleep and sleep hacking: Seth Roberts at, and Dave Asprey at

    Seth has a running thread on vitamin D supplement timing and sleep – take it first thing in the morning, and make sure you are taking enough. Standing on one foot and eating pork fat improves his sleep.

    And, Dave uses technology (Zeo Sleep Manager and emWave) to improve his sleep. Using this technology he is able to spend more time in 3 and 4 level sleep, lessening the amount of time he needs to be asleep and still perform at optimal levels.

    Interesting stuff.

    And, finally: Personally, I’m a naturally good sleeper – I can nod off playing Solitaire on my iPhone, or reading a book on the iPhone Kindle app. Dropping the phone wakes me back up. I do use f.lux on my laptop and sometimes fight to stay awake trying to finish reading a blog post.

    I also have a thought that vitamin D is linked to melatonin production. I get decent sun exposure and supplement with 4k IU (was 5k) and my most recent test showed my levels at 84. What I have noticed though, is on the days I get really good sun (1 1/2 to 2 hours, or more) I become tired earlier and fall asleep as easily at 9 as I normally do at 10 or 11, and I sleep longer. I know this is n=1, antidotal, with no data tracking or quantification, so take it with a grain of salt – if that’s still allowed where you live.

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