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Posted on / Dr. Laurie Pozun

Wired and Tired - How Technology Affects Our Sleep (And Brain!)

What is actually happening to our brains as we sift through dozens of emails, text messages, online articles, catch up on some online shopping or playing video games on our cellphones or devices prior to dozing off to sleep? The answer is exactly what we do NOT want to happen.  Our brains are stimulated and neurons are firing at warp-speed which is impairing our ability to fall asleep and stay asleep. As a result, we have poor sleep quality and fragmented sleep. We wake up feeling very groggy and exhausted. This correlates to daytime somnolence, reduced cognition, impaired memory, poor attention span, and irritability among other undesirable effects.

So, why does technology have such a negative effect on our sleep?

Artificial light alters the body’s natural 24-hour circadian rhythm.  Electromagnetic radiation (EMR) emits a short-wavelength blue light rather than natural white light.  This is abnormal to our brain and results in the suppression of release of melatonin (the sleep-inducing hormone made in our brain by the pineal gland.) This stimulating EMR light also exacerbates the fight-or-flight state which further crushes the chance for adequate restorative sleep.  Even if you are sleeping 8 hours a night, it does not mean that your sleep is all restorative if you are not getting into the proper deep sleep stages necessary for this to occur.

Studies have shown that individuals reading from devices at night rather than from traditional books actually show reduced slow, sleep inducing delta/theta activity on EEG (electroencephalogram) which correlates to poor sleep induction and increased sleep disruption.  This is compounded by the reduced melatonin secretion in our brains, causing a one-two punch to our sleep plan.

Disrupted sleep patterns have implications of negatively impacting our moods, work or school performance, and health.  Chronic melatonin suppression has been linked with health concerns including an increased risk for several types of cancers. This shows how deeply our mental and physical health is impacted by poor and inadequate sleep.

Technology also seriously disrupts children's sleep patterns if overused.

Let’s talk about our children. Almost inevitably our children, even starting in preschool, are exposed to or regularly use iPads, cellphones, laptops, and Xboxes or other video games. Many parents now complain that their children are not sleeping soundly, are not falling asleep easily, or not wanting to wake up easily in the morning.  Is it any wonder this is happening when their brains are constantly being stimulated by electronic devices throughout the day and often then night?

Remember, our children's brains are more sensitive to environmental influences than adults. A child and teen’s brain is more pliable as it is actively growing and changing. It's not as "hard-wired" as an adult brain. With some children, it's obvious when they're not getting adequate shut-eye. With others it's harder to tell. Here are some signs your child might not be getting restorative sleep:

  • Complaints of not being able to sleep
  • Dark circles under the eyes
  • Poor memory or focus
  • Poor learning retention
  • Difficult to wake up in the morning
  • Disorganized in the morning
  • Irritability and meltdowns

If this is eerily familiar in your house, you will want to take this seriously and make a plan to crack down on technology use. It’s time to unplug our kids and set strict limitations, even if this means you may be Enemy Number One in your home for a while. Begin by being the example to your children and set your devices down and shut them off within 3-4 hours of bedtime. You will likely begin to see improvements in moods, academic performance and health for your entire family. Plus, you may just begin to see your kids join you more readily in the family room for some much needed family time and bonding.

Written by Dr. Laurie Pozun

*as published in MASK magazine

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