We all have impediments to becoming our most efficient and productive selves. A common one at my stage of life is the wakeful baby/toddler, and I am now just emerging from the haze of 2 a.m. night terrors and 6 a.m. pokes asking for breakfast. But though my girls at six and three sleep through most nights, I am not feeling much more rested. I still have bouts of insomnia, still drag my limp carcass to the coffee maker each morning seeking a quick fix. I have gone back to the gym, adhered to a balanced and nutritious diet, yet I continue to suffer from the mental cobwebs.
I have spent my professional life emphasizing good sleep habits for my students as a step toward academic improvement, and it is high time I direct my advice inward. Recently, I had a conversation with a colleague during which we both lamented a decreased ability to engage with and focus on longer tasks, and I began telling him about my issues with sleep. Through our exploration of possible causes, I had what should have been an obvious realization:
I am a victim, as are the vast majority of adults and teens, of the pervasive, insidious, and ubiquitous SCREENS!
They are everywhere in my house. I just did a count and immediately listed the following: TV, my phone, wife’s phone, computer, tablet #1, tablet #2, music streaming video screen. But, the prevalence of screens isn’t limited to my house. We see them in the office, bus stops, restaurants, bars, gyms, and bathrooms. SCREENS! are addictive, alluring, and accessible. They are also sleep killers.
The science is fairly clear. SCREENS! produce disproportionate amounts of blue light, blue light suppresses melatonin production, low melatonin levels tend to shift circadian rhythms and disrupt sleep patterns. As a kid, I would stay up late reading and watching plenty of TV, but my sleep problem seems particularly pronounced in recent years. LEDs, which are found in all modern screens, are highly efficient and produce more blue light than your average incandescent light bulb or tube TV. The more blue light, the less melatonin, the worse your sleep. As reported in the Harvard Health Letter of Harvard Medical School, studies from both Harvard and University of Toronto have confirmed this connection.
The presence of blue light emitting screens only accounts for part of the problem. What’s so insidious about SCREENS! is that their inherent functions are designed to addict us. TV is now bingeable thanks to streaming services; video games are built to keep you coming back (especially addictive are in-game microtransactions, that are the fastest growing sources of income for software companies). The real difference maker, though, is the phone. Modern phones brilliantly and efficiently provide supplemental entertainment whenever and wherever we want it. And, as we use them, they flood us with notifications of incoming emails, text messages, Facebook likes, Instagram hearts, re-Tweets. These digital social stimuli satisfy our need for approval and cause our brains to produce dopamine, a chemical that reinforces behavior by signaling to our cells the desirability of an outcome and driving us toward that outcome again (for a more thorough explanation, check out this article by Trevor Haynes of the Department of Neurobiology at Harvard Medical School). So, as our dopamine levels rise, our motivation to seek it out through the same channels increases as well. Our SCREENS! become readily available syringes of dopamine, and we become more and more dependent on them. The producers of content for our SCREENS! of course know all of this and spend untold fortunes opportunistically designing their interfaces to take advantage of the brain’s chemical reward system. We are left salivating for ever more dopamine, endlessly scrolling and refreshing. And, in the thrall of the search for a fix, we stare at blue light. Sleep-killing, circadian-wrecking blue light. All thanks to SCREENS!
In light (pun of course intended) of all this, what can we do for our kids? Child and adolescent brains are more malleable and thus more susceptible to addiction than adult brains. According to the National Institutes of Health, “During adolescence, developmental changes in neural circuitry of reward processing, motivation, cognitive control, and stress may contribute to vulnerability for increased levels of engagement in substance use and nonsubstance addictive behaviors.” So, if we believe SCREENS! do harm, it is all the more critical that we identify and limit opportunities to develop addiction.
How do we move forward? What sort of miracle can we impose on ourselves and our kids to combat the combined forces of Insta-tweety-book, Angry-fort-bird-crush, and every other highly addictive function SCREENS! can afford? Are the combined powers of these behemoths beyond our capacity to resist?
But, we can start small. I’m not advocating a SCREEN-less house (I’m no nut-job), but I can certainly chip away at my own bad habits. My phone’s operating system can eliminate blue light on a healthy, sleep encouraging schedule (done!). I can delete apps on my phone that I don’t really need beyond work hours…or ever. I can go back to playing analog versions of the games I now play digitally (Scrabble, I’m looking at you!) and return to reading books and newspapers made of, well, paper. I can also advocate family behaviors that call out and combat the allure of our SCREENS! We can have regularly scheduled digital-free periods, especially weekday evenings within an hour of bedtime. We can put a “phone basket” at the front door. We can remove or unplug TVs, phones, and tablets from our dining table and bedrooms. All these provide a good model for kids who, especially if they are still outside the digital grip, will hopefully adopt a healthier approach to digital consumption.