Have you ever looked up from your email, bleary-eyed, only to realize that it’s 2AM in the morning? Or have you ever shut off your phone and lain awake in your bed, not feeling sleepy at all? We’ve all been there. More and more of us are using gadgets late into the night, and that’s taking a heavy toll on our sleeping patterns and overall wellbeing. Light, after all, is one of the top regulators of our sleeping patterns, and what gadget today doesn’t come with a backlight?
Swearing off gadgets entirely, however, has become all but impossible. Whether due to force of habit or the demands of our jobs, few of us can truly keep our evenings gadget-free. But that doesn’t mean we’re doomed to a lifetime of sleepless nights. There are a few steps we can take to strike a better balance between gadget use and restful sleep. Here are our top five:
1. Step outside.
Not during the night, of course! The task of maintaining our sleeping patterns is more of a marathon than a sprint, and unsurprisingly, the same holds true when it comes to managing the role that light plays. Research has found that your history of light exposure can determine how sensitive you are to nighttime light sources. Logging a lot of hours in the sun (or in the presence of bright light) during the day can make you more resilient to the effects of evening light sources and gadgets, even if these tend to emit lots of that problematic blue light.
Remember melanopsin? If you’ll recall, it has a high reactivity threshold; compared to the split-second reactivity of our retinas’ image-forming receptors, melanopsin is more influenced by the gradual build-up of light exposure throughout the day. When you soak in daytime bright light regularly, you train your melanopsin pathways to have a stiffer reaction threshold to the presence of light. Consequently, it will take more nighttime exposure to elicit strong melanopsin responses and create serious disruptions in your circadian patterns.
2. Switch lighting sources.
We’ve already gone over how crucial melanopsin is to the chain of biochemical processes that kick off and sustain our body’s circadian cycles. As such, this tip is also based, in part, off the characteristics of the retinal ganglion cells (ipRGCs) that house our eyes’ supply of melanopsin. These cells reside mostly in the lower sections of our eyes, perfect for taking in stimuli from overhead lighting sources: the sun, but also artificial light sources with beams that come in from above. This is partly why eye-level lighting sources are better for inducing sleep: not only are they dimmer; the light they emit also approaches our eyes at angles that don’t hit crucial melanopsin clusters as directly.
In fact, opting for lighting that’s not only indirect but softer and warmer is better for your sleep overall. We’ve discussed how color temperature can affect the feel—and the effects—of an artificial light source: higher color temperatures carry a bluer tint and are richer in the kind of blue-wavelength light that stimulates our melanopsin receptors the most. If you must have the lights on while using your gadgets, switch to sources that tick these three boxes: smaller, softer, warmer.
3. Adjust your devices’ backlight.
Of course, you could have all the lights off and still be wreaking havoc on your sleep cycle just through your gadgets alone. After all, most of our devices come with their own backlights, many of which use LEDs and emit tons of blue light as a result. Luckily, many manufacturers and third-party developers have come up with software solutions that let you adjust the color temperature of your screens. For desktops and laptops, for example, you’ll find programs that shift your screen’s color tint as the day goes on; mobile devices, meanwhile, can use any number of apps that do the same thing—or at least allow you manually change your screen light’s tints.
Changing the color temperature of your device is just one half of the solution, though. As researchers from the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute have found, engaging “Night Shift Mode” or its equivalent won’t help if you don’t reduce the overall brightness of your screen as well. When it comes to electronics, color temperature and light intensity go hand in hand.
4. Pick smaller screens.
As the importance of brightness in our previous point implies, light exposure from our devices isn’t just a question of “how blue?” The amount, duration, and intensity of the light we absorb also matters. That’s why, if you must use gadgets at night, it’s better to opt for those with smaller screens. That means picking a tablet over your laptop, or your phone over your tablet. If you can get by with sticking to your smartwatch’s tiny screen over your phone, then that’s even better.
Larger screens simply emit more light over time, so opting for the smaller device can be a simple way of drastically reducing how much light you’re actually taking in at night. Be careful not to go too small, though, or you might find yourself bringing that screen closer to your eyes—itself a no-no.
Screen distance is another factor when it comes to the intensity of the light that reaches our eyes: the closer a device is, the “brighter” it feels to our eye’s receptors. If you do switch to a smaller device, make sure you’re not bringing it too close to your eyes, which defeats the point of using a smaller screen in the first place.
5. Try not to use gadgets for more than 2 hours.
“Two” seems to be the magic number when it comes to structuring nighttime gadget use. We’ve already mentioned how helpful it can be to stop using gadgets 2-3 hours before you head to bed. But this time, science also cautions against taking that as permission to use your gadgets as much as possible in the early evening. Research has found that being exposed to gadget-emitted light for an hour didn’t result in statistically different melatonin levels compared to having no exposure at all. However, this changes once exposure time exceeds 2 hours: at this point, researchers recorded demonstrable levels of melatonin suppression.
This implies that nighttime gadget usage isn’t just an issue of timing, but of overall amount as well. As it turns out, our nighttime habits—and by extension, our sleeping patterns—really are the results of incremental changes that add up over time. Whether it’s desensitizing yourself to bright light or modifying your nighttime routine, the key to sleeping well despite using gadgets at night lies in consistently making tiny tweaks that add up to a healthier, more sustainable sleeping routine overall.