In an age of computer graphics, social media, and the ever-present technology that plays such a vital role in our daily lives, it comes as no surprise that even in the moments before we close our eyes every night that we are consumed with checking that last status or watching a video or two. Sometimes, we just want to have some good, old traditional reading using an electronic reading material and wait until we get drowsy and sleepy.
However, a new study published this week in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences revealed that reading through electronic devices such as iPad, smart phones and other similar devices before bedtime could disrupt sleep patterns, affecting sleep quality, and affecting long-term health.
Lead author of the study, Dr. Anne-Marie Chang and her colleagues studied the circadian cycles of a dozen patients only to find that their sleeping patterns changed as a result of reading using their techy gadgets, used so close to bedtime. "It may be having a greater impact than we previously thought," Chang said. "Electronic devices emit light that is short wavelength-enriched light, which has a higher concentration of blue light-with a peak around 450 nm-than natural light. This is different from natural light in composition, having a greater impact on sleep and circadian rhythms."
"This light has serious consequences on our sleep and on our alertness, not only while we're using these electronic devices but the following morning as well, even after eight hours of sleep," reports Chang.
As part of the experiment, half of the patients involved were asked to read on electronic gadgets for four hours each night before bedtime for five consecutive nights. The other patients, in contrast, were asked to read printed books in dim lighting for the same period of time. And when the next week arrived, the groups switched tasks so that the researchers could rule out abnormal sleeping habits each individual might have, and to better acquire insights into how technology affects each individual differently.
After normalizing the data, the researchers found that participants using electronic gadgets showed lower levels of melatonin, a hormone that typically increases in the evening and helps induce sleepiness. Those who tinkered with their gadgets fell asleep after longer periods of time, with less time in restorative REM, or rapid-eye movement, sleep-meaning that they did not have the best rest of their lives.
In fact, the next morning these patients were reported as being sleepier and less alert even after eight hours of sleep. And they also displayed delayed circadian rhythms to boot.
"Our most surprising finding was that individuals using the e-reader would be more tired and take longer to become alert the next morning. This has real consequences for daytime functioning, and these effects might be worse in the real world as opposed to the controlled environment we used," Chang said.
The researchers posit that the cause of the difference in sleep patterns is attributed to the frequency of light that is emitted by the electronic devices.
"There's a lot of skepticism out there; a lot of people think this is psychological," said Charles Czeisler, director of the Division of Sleep Medicine at Harvard Medical School. "But what we showed is that reading from light-emitting, e-reader devices has profound biological effects."
However, the standard Kindle e-reader, which doesn't emit light, was an exception and was more akin to a printed book, Czeisler said.