By: Michael Winser, Registered Polysomnographic Technologist, WSU Spokane Sleep and Performance Research Center

In a world where technology keeps us always logged on, it has become harder and harder to log off. In 2011, the National Sleep Foundation Sleep in America poll found that most people (86%) are using technology like mobile phones, computers and TVs every single night in the hour before bed. While we may feel more productive or more in touch by using technology before going to sleep, we might be setting ourselves up for being less productive and more out of touch the following day.

Time to unwind

Humans are social animals and crave interaction. We enjoy feeling connected to others and technology like computers, smartphones and TV can provide us that connection.

Technology, though, keeps the mind actively engaged when it should be winding down before sleep. This problem isn’t just limited to modern technology. Long before computers, smartphones and TV, people were still staying up late reading exciting books, chatting on the phone, or “burning the midnight oil.”

However, your body has a natural 24-hour rhythm which coordinates countless processes in the body, including keeping you alert during the day and preparing you for sleep at night. Being engaged with technology keeps your mind active and doesn’t allow your brain time to prepare for drifting off to sleep.

Too much activity and staying up late can also delay your rhythm, which will not only make it much harder to sleep at your normal time, but also to wake up the next morning. This is the same effect you would get by traveling west to a new time zone.

On a similar note, these technologies can also be unpredictably stressful. Your favorite TV show (or book) might have a stunning plot twist. Checking work emails may get you worrying about your to-do list. A friend on Facebook might share a controversial post that upsets you. This increased stress not only makes it harder to fall asleep, but can also reduce your sleep quality, leading to shallower, less restorative sleep.

Things that go bzzz! in the night

Even after you have drifted off, technology can still have adverse effects on your sleep. Almost any app you download for your smartphone has notifications, and most notifications don’t know or care what time it is. “It’s 3am! A new update for this app is available!” The beeps or vibrations from these notifications can cause brief awakenings throughout the night, some so brief that you may not remember them.

Interruptions like this can fragment your sleep, and can be as bad as getting too little sleep. You see, when you sleep your brain doesn’t just slow down or turn off. Sleep is actually a quite active process, which is made up of many stages that cycle multiple times throughout the night. If a stage is interrupted for some reason, such fragmentation reduces the effectiveness of your sleep, and can cause drowsiness and impair your ability to function the following day.

New mothers experience this kind of regular sleep fragmentation when they wake up throughout the night to tend to their child. This fragmentation of their sleep is a primary contributor to “mommy brain,” a period of sleepiness and impaired cognitive performance during the first months after giving birth.

How to disconnect

In our modern, connected world, it might seem hard to disconnect, but if you want a better night’s sleep, it might be as simple as limiting your technology use in the bedroom. Here are a few tips to help you log off for the night:

  1. Keep computers and TVs out of the bedroom. Try to use your bedroom only for relaxing activities. If you feel like you must sleep with a TV on, try a white noise machine instead.
  2. Stay off of technology for at least a half an hour before bed. Use this free time to wind down and relax. Keep the lights low and get in some easy, relaxing reading or write in a journal.
  3. If you can’t stop worrying about things, try writing those worries down in a to-do list for the next day.
  4. At night, keep your smartphone turned off, or silence all sounds (including vibration). If you must be available by phone, turn off your WiFi and data connections so that only texts and calls can get through.