Why do electronic gadgets scramble our sleep? – Salon

Earlier this year, a group of scientists published a study in the American Journal of Medical Genetics Part B that was, in part, about the sleeping patterns of individuals in Amish and Mennonite communities. The reason that a sleep study might target Amish and Mennonites is perhaps obvious when you think about it: individuals in both communities generally forgo most electronics, including devices like smartphones and tablets — essentially, the kinds of blinking bright gadgets that are known to interfere with human sleep. 

Specifically, the researchers’ goal was to learn about how stress and mood disorders impact not only one’s immediate ability to sleep, but whether any of those traits can be genetically passed on to one’s children. Structuring the study around a community with limited electronic technology was critical to the researchers’ findings (which, notably, were unequivocal: environmental stress and mental health both can have detrimental effects on one’s sleep quality). If you think sleeping is difficult when you feel anxious or suffer from a psychological illness, that is nothing compared to how much worse it gets when you’re also surrounded by electronic technology.

As Ohio State University professor Amy I. Nathanson wrote last year in a study for the journal Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Clinics of North America, there is little research about how young children’s sleep health is impacted by the omnipresence of electronic technology like smart phones, computers, televisions, video game consoles, baby monitors and the internet of things. Even so, scientists have established that technology use is linked to shorter periods of sleep, daytime exhaustion and later hours in which children actually fall asleep. The limited research on infants and toddlers suggests that they are especially susceptible to having electronic technology-related sleep disorders, perhaps even more strongly than older children, and that children seem to struggle the most with sleep when they use technology shortly before bedtime. Scholars believe this may happen for reasons ranging from time displacement and increased arousal from stimuli to blue light suppressing melatonin, a key chemical for sleeping.

A comprehensive review of scientific research on electronic media and child sleep, which was published in September by the journal BMC Public Health, also revealed that there was more proof for a connection between using those tools and reduced sleep duration for children between the ages of six and fifteen than for those who are under six. The evidence was more inconclusive when it came to other sleep outcomes, but they noted that there was evidence among children between the ages of six and twelve that using electronic media reduced their sleep quality after making it harder for them to fall asleep. Move the age range up to 13-to-15-year-olds, and you find links between social media use and screen time with insomnia and unsatisfying sleep. A 2018 study in the Journal of American College Health found that late-night texting among college students can cause reduced sleep quality, sleep interruption and even (troublingly) texting without remembering having done so.

So why does technology seem to scramble our brains?

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