Is your smartphone keeping you awake?
A few weeks ago, I woke up a groggy mess and cast about for who was responsible — only to remember I’d stayed up doomscrolling on my phone until the wee hours of the night. I resolved to start leaving my phone out of the bedroom to remove temptation, which became its own test as I worried about potential missed texts or calls from loved ones.
There are pros and cons to having your phone in your bedroom during sleep, and they shift depending on circumstances — for instance, caregivers or emergency workers who need to respond to calls in the middle of the night likely need their phone as close as possible while they rest. Ditto for anyone on call if a loved one needs a ride in the late hours. And for many of us, phones are the do-all gadget that also functions as an alarm clock — so why would you leave it outside the bedroom?
Studies have shown that habitually using phones late at night may lead to poorer task performance and mental health. While most of those studies have tracked student behavior, it doesn’t matter if you’ve got a pop quiz in the morning or an Excel spreadsheet to fill out — if you’re up late mainlining a rectangle of blue light that keeps your brain spinning with TikToks and social posts, it’s going to take a toll the day after.
Read more: 5 Reasons You Should Unplug From Social Media
After surveying over 180,000 Australian students for a 2018 paper in the journal Sleep on the impact of late-night phone use and sleep, University of South Australia psychology professor Kurt Lushington has been exploring the same effects in adults. Though the research is preliminary, “digital device use at bedtime is associated with worse sleep and next day performance which mirrors what others have found,” Lushington said.
For adults, the phenomenon might not just be using phones in the bedroom, but continuing to use any device late at night for work or play. “Using a digital device at bedtime simply represents a continuum of overwork which may be more responsible for deficits than taking a device to bed per se,” Lushington said. He acknowledged that adults have other reasons to keep their phones nearby, including listening to podcasts or music to help them drift off to sleep.
Read more: The 7 Best Sleep Headphones in 2023
On the bright side, Lushington’s more recent study of Australian boarding students who stayed at school overnight found an enlightening consensus: boarders slept better overnight than non-boarding peers because of strict policies preventing them from taking devices to bed.
Adopting similar no-device rules could be helpful, but phones have become our lifelines to the outside world, and cutting the digital umbilical — even for the nocturnal hours when we’re not awake to use them — can be hard. Here’s how I’ve done it.
Phones can lull you to sleep…or keep you up for hours.
I just need some space (from my phone)
Like I imagine is the case for most phone owners on the planet, I’ve fallen into the habit of keeping my phone within arm’s reach as I sleep. But in addition to keeping me up later, if I wake in the middle of the night and check the time, seeing notifications can easily lead me to check those — and suddenly a brief break in sleep becomes a 10- to 15-minute phone scrolling section.
Moving my phone outside the bedroom was a hard habit to break. My phone is something between a daily essential and an appendage — just like patting my pockets to make sure I’ve got my handset when I leave the house, putting it outside the bedroom at night triggered my anxiety.
To soothe my mind, I replaced my lazy end-of-night sequence of falling in bed looking at my phone with an actual routine. I wound down an hour before I wanted to fall asleep and stopped looking at screens, cleaned my skin and teeth, and restricted myself to books from then until I drifted off. We’ve got suggestions for tried-and-true bedtime routines, but the most important thing is adhering to a defined schedule and keeping your brain away from news/conversations/notifications that will spin it back up. When I put my phone down outside my bedroom, it stays there until the morning.
Read more: CNET Wellness Editors Reveal the 9 Ways They Get Quality Sleep
I will confess to indulging in two minor loopholes to the above. First, I sleep with an Apple Watch, mostly so that my set alarm will wake me up in the morning. I do have a discrete alarm clock by my bedside (a leftover from high school), but the vibrations of the smartwatch are a much gentler wakeup than the blaring beeps that wake me in a cold sweat thinking I’m late for class.
So long as I set my phone in Sleep focus, zero notifications get through — except for selected family members, so I know I’m not missing an emergency call. I also use my Apple Watch to track sleep, so it’s on my wrist anyway.
The other loophole to my no-screen rule is having an e-reader by my bed. My Kindle Paperwhite is set to dark mode, and the E Ink screen doesn’t emit the blue light that keeps me up — I can even give the white-on-black letters a warmer tint to make it easier on my eyes. I can turn out the lights and read without keeping myself up. Best of all, if I wake in the middle of the night, I can turn to my e-reader to soothe myself back to sleep — no notifications, no bright light.
The importance of (rarely) letting the phone back in
That said, there are certainly times where I need my phone next to me as I sleep. Last year, I missed a 7 a.m. flight due to an iOS beta bug silencing alarms (a calamitous tech reporter failure that led me to speedrun the five stages of grief), and now I keep my handset next to me the night before travel with multiple redundant alarms queued up so I wake up on time.
Likewise, if I’m waiting to hear from a friend or having a late conversation just before sleep, I’m not going to get out of bed and put the phone away. After a few weeks of regularly keeping my phone outside the bedroom, I don’t have to because I’ve retrained my brain to not need the phone nearby — at least once I’ve started my bedtime routine.
Every other time of day, though, I’m still slavishly attached to my phone, mindlessly unlocking it to scroll through social media and browse the internet. When people reach out, I respond quickly and reinforce the notion that I’m available at all times. Ultimately, by adhering to my rigid no-screen bedtime routine, I’m treating the symptom and not the cause of my addiction to the content firehose spilling from my phone.
For my sanity, I should probably reduce my phone use overall, but it’s a Herculean effort — and as the 2018 Sleep paper showed, there is an upside of increased social connection when interacting with friends and strangers over message and social media apps. While we’re past the days of pandemic lockdown when we relied on digital platforms for our only social interaction, my phone is still a portal to people I know all over the country (and beyond). Keeping these tendrils of human connection alive has kept me going through a tough last few years.
But as I keep reminding myself, I can make that social media post or message from a friend off-limits. They will still be there in the morning, and I’ll be more rested to enjoy it.