Screen time – At least a little – Maybe not bad for sleep

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February 17, 2022 — Here’s some encouraging news for those who enjoy watching TV or playing video games at bedtime: A new study finds that contrary to popular belief, media use during the hour before going to bed may not lead to poor sleep.

In a small study, researchers asked 58 adults aged 19 to 66 to keep a diary that recorded information about the time they spent with the media before going to bed, where in their home they used the media and if they were doing other activities. at the same time.

Participants wore small metal discs attached to their scalp to detect electrical activity in the brain during sleep and capture information, such as when the person fell asleep, total sleep duration and sleep quality .

Media use in the hour before falling asleep was related to an earlier bedtime; and, if participants used their media while already in bed and not multitasking, they also slept more.

“The conclusion is not that everyone can necessarily watch a lot of TV before bed and expect to be fine, but a little TV or a video game before bed, if that helps you relax. , is likely to be potentially beneficial, or at least it won’t hurt you if you stop intentionally, don’t let it upset the bedtime, and keep the session relatively short,” explains the lead author of the study, Morgan Ellithorpe, PhD.

The study was published online February 8 in the sleep research journal.

Adults versus children

Media use is linked to poor sleep, says Ellithorpe, an assistant professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Delaware.

This perspective is “relatively true,” she says, but most research on this issue has been conducted with children, who have “a strong relationship between pre-bedtime media use and poor sleep.”

But adults see more mixed effects, she says.

Ellithorpe lists several reasons why media use can have a negative effect on sleep. The wavelength of screen light may be the culprit, or staying up too late instead of sleeping may be to blame.

Another possibility is the “excitement hypothesis”, which means the person watched something exciting, maybe with lots of cliffhangers, something suspenseful, so it’s harder to calm down and to fall asleep,” she said.

On the other hand, some research suggests that a little media use before bed might not cause problems, especially since not all media is the same. Pleasant and relaxing media might actually help improve sleep quality.

The researchers also found flaws in previous research. For example, measures of sleep and media use were “unreliable” because they were based on patients reporting their own experiences, often days later, and because these studies did not pay attention to “specific features of media use and content”.

In the current study, participants were asked to complete a 3-day media diary and also measured their sleep quality using monitors worn in bed at home.

Impact of binge-watching

Participants had to carry their diary and record all the media they consumed, whether for entertainment or information, including movies, television, YouTube videos, browsing the internet and listening to music . They were asked to state the name of the program or media item, the time they engaged in it, and its duration.

The researchers did not include social media (including email).

More than 40% of participants reported using media during the hour before bedtime at least 1 night. The researchers called the link between media use before bed and sleep “complex”.

Benefits were reduced by multitasking or use outside of bed. Additionally, the longer participants used media, the less sleep-related benefits they saw.

“A 2-hour ‘bulimia session’ was associated with 40 minutes less sleep because people kept pushing their bedtimes in order to keep watching,” says Ellithorpe. “This is consistent with the sleep displacement hypothesis.”

Complex, Nuanced

Commenting on the study for WebMD, Nitun Verma, MD, sleep physician at AC Wellness in Cupertino, Calif., agrees that “it’s wise to treat social media differently from other media, as the authors did.”

But, he says, “the type of media considered for the study is quite broad. For example, the media could be soothing music, online gambling or intensive video games. These could have very different effects on sleep, perhaps with even stronger effects than place or time.”

Even with just one category of media, like video games, “there can be a varied effect on sleep,” Verma says.

It makes sense, he says, that “active, stimulating media” would have a different effect on sleep than, say, listening to soft music or other “passive” media.

He suggests that a larger study “comparing not just timing but also media content would provide more authority to claim that certain media used before bedtime may benefit sleep.”

Ellithorpe agrees, and says his team looked at what specific movies or games participants were watching and how much their emotions or intelligence were being tested. “But media use is so complex and disparate that we had too much complexity in that data to statistically interpret that information,” she says.