Wellness

Science says: Parents and kids need to banish blue light in the bedroom ASAP

Phones and tablets might wreak havoc on sleep quality...even when they're off.
(Credit: iStock/Getty Images)

To say we're obsessed with screens is fair. To say kids are obsessed with screens is an understatement. If you've been tempted to impose a household ban (god help you), science may finally have your back, if only from sundown to sundup.

Recent stats show that "kids between ages 6 and 19 who used screen-based media around bedtime slept worse and were more tired in the day." That may not leave you dumbstruck. But this might: the same was true when screens, phones and tablets were left completely untouched. Ben Carter, a biostatistician at King's College London, says the mere presence alone of any screened device in the bedroom is enough to wreak havoc on sleep quality. You may want to rethink using your phone as an alarm clock.

According to Carter's research, published in the December issue of JAMA Pediatrics, kids with "screen-based media" in their rooms got less sleep. The results weren't just quantitative, they were qualitative too: any sleep they did get was worse than that of kids with screen-free rooms. Something that lead to notable fatigue during waking hours. Excellent news if you run a coffee shop on campus.

That phones, laptops, tablets and TVs disrupt sleep is not new to us. But the science behind imposing a healthy ban on screens for kids (and adults) is becoming more and more sound. That science, by the way, in case you're not au courant is as follows: screened devices emit blue light, blue light can be bad for you. Why? Because it affects sleep. And horribly so. Also, and I'm not momming you, but you really, really need more sleep.

Troubled sleep is linked to weight gain, viral infections, diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, poor mental health, low sex drive, and higher mortality rates. Yes, lack of sleep outright kills you, eventually. While fatal familial insomnia is extremely rare, the long-term effects of poor sleep harshly tax the body and mind. And for kids in school, fatigue causes stress, making it harder to learn. Writing up new anti-blue light household laws to stick to the fridge, yet? Get on it, Hammurabi.

Before I give all blue light a bad rap, I should clarify that it is everywhere. The sky, for instance, gets its hue from short, high-energy blue wavelengths when sunlight collides with air molecules. Ergo, blue sky. Blue light wakes you up, makes you alert, boosts your mood, heightens your reaction times and affects your general well-being. And it pretty much dictates your circadian rhythm (aka your sleep cycle). So, it's important. The trouble is, it's also beaming out of every screen, fluorescent bulb and LED light well beyond the setting of the sun and into the night making it tough to get quality dodos. Ultimately, blue light interferes with the sleep-inducing hormone, melatonin. Melatonin production happens naturally at night as it gets darker which ushers you into a restful sleep pattern. Note that melatonin is sometimes referred to as the "hormone of darkness". If that sounds dramatic consider what happens to your body and mind when you can't sleep (see creepy list above). All things considered, it's actually a pretty fair handle. Melatonin hates light. Somebody get the Hormone of Darkness a hooded cloak, already.

When it comes to screens, however, researchers were careful to point out that they aren't entirely sure if it's pre-bedtime use, a tendency to reach for a phone in the wee hours (I hereby vow to stop doing this to check the time as I flood my face with melatonin-banishing blue light like a dumb dumb) or just the "mental energy of thinking about a text chain or game" that disrupts sleep. Regardless, there's no shortage of factors that point to screens being problematic for restfulness and health so policing use after dark may not be a bad idea.

If a strict ban seems too militant, download f.lux for your laptop. It syncs your devices up with dusk and dawn reducing blue-light accordingly. I love it. It's that or blue-light blocking eyewear that are going to make you look like you're experimenting with Cyclops cosplay. I have those too. Useful? Yes. Cool? Less so.

Devices are noisey. They beep and buzz and make old-timey car horn noises gracing us with important updates from friends who "just finished Black Mirror can't sleep, you up?" I am now, Chris. And we associate them with everything from work to that guy you're dating who won't text you back. Tough to get the old noodle to downshift enough to take the snuggle train to Sleepy Town when it's all juiced up on worry sauce. Or in more scientific terms, "the use of mobile media devices at bedtime provides socially and physiologically stimulating material at a time when the transition to sleep requires the brain to wind down". So say sleep experts Charles Czeisler and Theresa Shanahan of Harvard Medical School in their related study, Streaming Instead of Dreaming. And we should take heed.

Your next ace parenting move may just be a blue-light ban in the bedroom. Might be wise to avoid the "do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do" approach and impose that ban on yourself as well. So, sleep tight and live a little… longer.


Marc Beaulieu is a writer, producer and host of the live Q&A show guyQ LIVE @AskMen.

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