How Do Smartphones Affect Sleep Quality?

How Do Smartphones Affect Sleep Quality? (2024)

Last updated: 19.03.2024 Reading time: 8 Min.

In today's digitally connected world, smartphones have become indispensable companions.

But their impact on our sleep quality is a growing concern.

This article explores the multifaceted ways in which our bedtime phone habits are contributing to a decline in sleep quality, offering insights into the silent cost of our digital lifestyles. 📱

Join us as we dive into the science behind sleep disruption and the effects smartphones have on sleep quality.

Health effects of cellphones

What are the side effects of using a mobile phone at night?

Before discussing the science behind the sleep-related side effects of mobile phone use [1], let's examine what the major side effects on sleepers are.

The correlation between smartphones and poor sleep quality brings up a few key concerns, including:

  • How smartphone use reduces sleep time
  • The effects of blue light
  • Social media usage and anxiety
  • Smartphones triggering hypervigilance
  • The potentially harmful effects of radiation
  • Smartphone notifications impacting REM sleep

The first few directly relate to smartphone use before bed, while the last three revolve around how smartphones can negatively affect sleep quality by simply being near you when you sleep.

Let's look at these in more detail in the sections below.

The side effects of smartphone use before bed

To start, let's consider how smartphone usage before bed negatively affects your sleep.

How smartphone usage reduces sleep time

While considering the effects your mobile phone has on the quality of your sleep is one thing, it's also important to consider how smartphone use affects actual sleep duration.

Throughout the night, we undergo 4 to 6 sleep cycles, each with a different purpose.

sleep cycle
There are four stages of sleep.

Mobile phones have long become synonymous with daily life - we use our phones to call, text, check directions, chat on social media, play games, read books, listen to podcasts, browse the internet, and so much more.

Listening to a sleep meditation or playing relaxing music from your phone is unlikely to negatively affect sleep quality or reduce overall sleep time.

Unfortunately, many modern social networking apps are designed to provide dopamine hits, making it almost impossible to stop jumping from reel to reel.

Social media use and its so-called "doom-scrolling [2]" keeps users engaged far longer than they'd like, and since content is served in bite-size portions, viewers very easily lose track of time.

We all know the feeling of getting into bed at a decent hour, quickly checking something on Instagram, and the next thing you know, three hours have passed.

This eats up valuable sleep time.

A reduction in sleep time, accumulated night after night, can lead to a host of sleep problems and related health issues, including:

  • Sleep deprivation, which is a risk factor for more serious issues like obesity
  • Daytime sleepiness, which affects day-to-day activities, including work and academic performance
  • More severe sleep disorders, such as insomnia
  • Mental health concerns and depression

All of these can also be linked to serious health concerns - we discuss this in more detail in the FAQ section of this article.

Smartphone addiction is especially prevalent among adolescents, and studies [3] show that over half of children in Britain sleep with their phones in or near their beds - something that has become a public health concern.

Solving this problem is a conflict of interest for social media giants, as they do want to keep users engaged.

However, the prevalence of the problem has led to major companies, like Meta, introducing "take a break" reminders to keep people aware of how much time they're spending on social media.

The effects of blue light

Blue light is not a new term, and most people will be aware that smartphone screens emit blue light and that blue light emission affects sleep efficiency and the body's natural circadian rhythm [4].

In a nutshell, blue light triggers photoreceptors in the retina to suppress melatonin production [5] (your body's sleep hormone) and shift your body's circadian clock.

This has a two-pronged effect, simultaneously suppressing the chemicals that tell your body it should start feeling sleepy and stimulating alertness, keeping you awake for longer.

melatonin production
Your body depends on melatonin to help you fall asleep.

The use of mobile phones before bed negatively impacts sleep latency (the time it takes you to fall asleep) and leads to poorer sleep.

Social media usage and anxiety

While doomscrolling can be rewarding in the sense that your brain thrives on all the new content, there's also no way of guaranteeing that you won't come across negative content that triggers fears, stresses, or anxiety.

By controlling what you absorb before bed, you can also control your stress and relaxation levels, which can lead you to experience good sleep.

man ruminating at night
Stress triggers before bed can lead to restless nights.

However, unknown content and problematic smartphone use may trigger anxieties, leading to both an inability to fall asleep or restless nights while sleeping.

Both of these lead to a lower quality of sleep.

The side effects of keeping your smartphone near your bed

Next, let's look at some of the smartphone side effects that aren't directly related to phone usage before bed.

Smartphones triggering hypervigilance

It's becoming increasingly difficult to "switch off" and the use of smartphones has certainly heightened this phenomenon.

We have to make a conscious effort to wind down at the end of a long day and give our minds and bodies a chance to recover.

Unfortunately, by keeping your phone near you at night, your subconscious mind tells you that you are ready to answer a call, e-mail, or text.

girl sleeping with phone in bed
Sleeping with your phone in your bed can lead to subconscious hypervigilance.

This makes it even more challenging to switch off, keeping you in a state of hypervigilance.

The potentially harmful effects of radiation

Mobile phones emit radiation, which has always been a concern for those who believe this radiation increases the risk of cancer.

At this stage, there is no conclusive scientific evidence [6] that mobile phone usage increases cancer risk.

But, the FDA still recommends some steps to reduce exposure to radiofrequency radiation [7], suggesting that taking a break from your smartphone's radiation may not be a bad idea.

Of course, this doesn't only apply to sleeping, but one way to easily decrease the amount of radiation from your smartphone is by placing it at least a metre away from your bed (or, even better, in another room) or switching your phone off or to flight mode.

If you're uncomfortable doing this, you can at least turn off connections such as Bluetooth or Wi-Fi.

Smartphone notifications impacting REM sleep

Having a smartphone beside your bed can significantly reduce Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep, a crucial phase of the sleep cycle associated with dreaming, memory consolidation, and emotional processing.

The presence of a smartphone can lead to increased alertness due to the anticipation of notifications, even if the device is not actively being used, disrupting the natural progression into deeper sleep stages.

Additionally, the emission of blue light from the screen when checking the device at night can suppress melatonin production, making it harder to return to sleep and transition into REM stages.

This reduction in REM sleep can impair cognitive functions and emotional regulation, reducing overall sleep quality.

Tips to combat the negative side effects of smartphones on sleep

While it's good and well to be aware of the harmful effects of mobile phones, it can be difficult to implement changes.

But intervention is important.

Here are a few suggestions that will help you put away your phone and get a better night's rest.

Stop using your phone at least one hour before bed

To safeguard your sleep quality and facilitate a smoother transition to sleep, it's recommended to stop using your phone and other electronic devices at least an hour before bedtime.

This one-hour buffer period allows your brain to unwind and distance itself from the stimulating effects of screen time, including the blue light emission that inhibits melatonin production.

By creating a screen-free zone before sleep, you encourage your body to initiate its natural sleep processes, making it easier to fall asleep and enjoy a more restful night.

Establishing such a routine not only enhances sleep quality but also contributes to better overall health and well-being.

Adopting habits like reading a book or practising relaxation techniques can serve as beneficial alternatives to screen time, further promoting sleep hygiene and setting a conducive environment for quality sleep.

Use blue-light filtering glasses

If you do have to use your smartphone (or another electronic device) closer to your bedtime, blue-light filtering glasses [8] can be helpful.

These glasses are specifically designed to limit your level of blue light exposure.

blue light glasses
Blue light glasses can be helpful in eliminating some of the negative effects of blue light exposure.

That said, we'd still recommend turning off all electronic devices at least 30 minutes before bed to give your mind the chance to reset and recover before going to bed.

Switch off your phone when you go to sleep

Switching off your smartphone before you go to sleep or, even better, removing it from your bedroom entirely, fights the side effects of smartphones in two ways:

  • It removes the risk of getting into the habit of doom-scrolling.
  • It removes the subconscious hypervigilance and negative effects on REM sleep that keeping a phone near your bed may have.

If you're not entirely comfortable turning off your smartphone, you can start by turning off connections such as Bluetooth and Wi-Fi and then work up to switching your phone to flight mode when going to bed.

Practical tips for difficult situations

Not everyone has the luxury of completely disconnecting from or removing their smartphones entirely when going to bed.

University students or young adults renting a room, for example, won't be able to move their phones into another room.

If that's the case, do what you can:

  • Minimise or eliminate screen time at least 30 minutes to 1 hour before bed
  • Switch your phone over to flight mode or at least turn off Bluetooth and Wi-Fi connections
  • Invest in an old-school alarm clock, so you're not reliant on your phone
  • Place your phone at the opposite end of your room or into a drawer before you go to bed
  • Build a habit of reading a good book before bed to get out of the doom-scrolling habit

Getting a good night's sleep without your mobile phone's harmful effects interfering is only a few changes away.

You can also implement a few sleep-enhancer products, like the below options from Aeyla.

Aeyla's relaxing sleep products:

Is there a way forward where smartphone usage doesn't negatively impact sleep quality?

As we've hopefully shown, there are ways to use your smartphone without negatively affecting sleep quality - simply by following a few rules.

By avoiding screen time at least an hour before bed and switching your phone to flight mode while sleeping, you can set up a healthy sleep routine that affords you the luxury of smartphone usage throughout the day without the negative impacts on sleep.

This way, you can reduce internet addiction, the overuse of smartphones, and smartphone dependence at night for a more restful sleep.

Frequently asked questions

  • Can my phone affect my sleep?

    Yes, your phone can significantly affect your sleep.

    The blue light emitted by phone screens can suppress the production of melatonin, the hormone that regulates sleep-wake cycles, making it harder to fall asleep.

    Additionally, the mental stimulation from using apps, browsing the internet, or engaging in social media can keep your brain alert and active, further delaying sleep onset.

    Notifications and the temptation to check your phone can also disrupt your sleep if you wake up during the night.

    To minimise these effects, it's advisable to limit phone use before bed and consider keeping your device away from your sleeping area.

  • How far away should your phone be when you sleep?

    To minimise the potential disruptions and negative effects on sleep quality, it's advisable to keep your phone at least 1 metre away from your bed while you sleep.

    This distance helps reduce exposure to electromagnetic fields (EMFs) and limits the likelihood of being disturbed by notifications or the temptation to use the phone if you awaken during the night.

    For those concerned about EMF exposure, increasing the distance even further can provide additional peace of mind.

    Ideally, keeping your phone outside of the bedroom or in a designated spot that requires getting out of bed to reach it can further discourage late-night screen time and promote a healthier sleep environment.

    If you use your phone as an alarm, consider switching to a traditional alarm clock to avoid close proximity to your phone throughout the night.

  • Is it bad to sleep next to a charging phone?

    Sleeping next to a charging phone is generally considered safe in terms of exposure to direct harm; however, it can have indirect negative effects on sleep quality.

    The main concerns include the potential for overheating, especially if the phone is under pillows or blankets, which could pose a fire risk, though such incidents are rare.

    More relevant to sleep quality, the presence of a phone within easy reach can disrupt sleep due to the temptation to check the device for notifications, messages, or updates if you wake up during the night.

    Additionally, the light from the screen, even if only activated briefly, can interrupt your body's natural sleep cycle by inhibiting melatonin production.

    To ensure a better night's sleep, it's recommended to keep your phone at a distance from your bed and preferably not charge it overnight next to you.

  • Why has Apple issued a warning not to sleep near your phone?

    Apple has issued guidelines regarding the optimal use of their devices [9] to ensure user safety, and keeping the phone away while sleeping is one of the points noted.

    This is primarily due to overheating risks and charging safety:

    • Overheating risks: Sleeping with a phone, especially under a pillow or blanket, can increase the risk of the device overheating. This not only poses a potential safety hazard but can also affect battery performance and longevity.
    • Charging safety: Charging a phone in bed or under a pillow can pose a fire risk if the device or charger overheats. It's safer to charge the device away from the bed and on a non-flammable surface.

    Apple's warning is part of broader advice from health and safety organisations that recommend minimising close, prolonged contact with mobile devices during use and especially while sleeping, to ensure both safety and a healthier sleep environment.

  • Is using smartphones before bed a healthcare concern in the UK?

    Using smartphones before bed is increasingly recognised as a healthcare concern in the UK, mirroring global concerns about the impact of screen time on sleep and overall health.

    The blue light emitted by smartphones can disrupt the production of melatonin, the hormone responsible for regulating sleep-wake cycles, making it more difficult to fall asleep.

    This disruption can lead to sleep deprivation, which is linked to a range of health issues, including a decrease in physical activity, obesity, heart disease, endothelial dysfunction, diabetes, and mental health disorders such as anxiety and depression.

    Healthcare professionals and sleep experts in the UK emphasise the importance of good sleep hygiene, which includes limiting exposure to screens before bedtime.

    Given the widespread use of smartphones and the increasing evidence of their impact on sleep, the importance of intervention to reduce smartphone addiction and overal screen time  is becoming an important public health message in the UK.

  • What are the symptoms of phone radiation?

    The topic of phone radiation, specifically non-ionising radiation emitted by mobile phones, and its potential health effects is a subject of ongoing research and debate.

    Mobile phones emit low levels of radiofrequency energy (RF), a type of non-ionising electromagnetic radiation, which, to date, has not been conclusively linked to any serious health effects in humans at the levels emitted by mobile phones.

    However, there is ongoing research into whether long-term exposure to RF radiation can have subtle effects on human health.

    The International Agency for Research on Cancer [10] has classified RF radiation as "possibly carcinogenic to humans" based on limited evidence of a possible link to certain types of brain tumours, but more research is needed to understand the relationship fully.

    Commonly discussed symptoms or concerns associated with phone radiation exposure, though not scientifically proven to be directly caused by RF radiation, include:

    • Headaches and dizziness
    • Fatigue
    • Sleep disturbances
    • Changes in memory or cognitive function
    • Skin irritation or warmth on the side of the face exposed to the phone during calls

    It's important to note that these symptoms are non-specific and can be caused by various factors, not necessarily linked to phone radiation.

    Current scientific evidence does not support a clear causal relationship between mobile phone use and these symptoms.

    To reduce exposure to RF radiation, health organisations suggest using hands-free devices, texting instead of calling, and limiting the duration of mobile phone calls.

  • References



Editor & Certified Sleep Therapist

Nicky is an experienced writer and editor with numerous qualifications. As a certified sleep coach, her interests lie in understanding how sleep problems arise from hormonal and environmental issues, particularly as part of stress and anxiety management.

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