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Is My Phone Harming My Sleep? A Q&A with Jared Minkel, Ph.D.

By Nicole Pajer
May 12, 2023

This article is part of a Q&A series in which a healthcare professional in our community answers your frequently asked questions. Here, we talked to Jared Minkel, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and sleep specialist who develops digital therapeutics at Twill. Minkel explains exactly how smartphones harm sleep and what you can do about it.

We asked: “How does my phone affect my sleep?”

Jared Minkel, Ph.D.: I grew up before anyone had cellphones. They actually exploded onto the scene while I was at college—one day, everyone had those little Nokia brick phones. It’s been amazing to see the rapid progress in technology, but unfortunately, smartphones have really been terrible for our sleep.

Research conducted by Common Sense Media found that 40% of teenagers and 26% of adults admit to checking their phones within five minutes of going to bed. We hear all the time that it’s best to avoid interacting with our phones before bed. But why exactly is sleeping with a phone near you so bad? And how is it affecting your sleep?

It Elicits Strong Emotions

A huge thing that I tell people is to avoid interacting with your phone before bed. Everybody thinks about blue light, and that’s true, but it’s not the biggest thing. I think it's much more about the emotional content on your phone. Try to avoid your phone about an hour before bed because social media, news, and most apps are designed to be as emotionally provocative as possible so that we will continue to engage with them.

If you're doing anything on your phone, you're exposing yourself to an algorithm that's intended to elicit strong negative emotions. These emotions increase arousal and motivate you to take action—not what you want when you’re trying to sleep! The best emotional state for sleep is pleasant but relaxed. You want to feel cozy, content, and safe—not excited, angry, or sad.

We Just Can’t Resist

If you really wanted to, you could probably use your phone for something less emotional, like listening to soft music or a bedtime story. But I think if people are being honest, once you pick up your phone, you're going to go to your most addictive apps.

I’m guilty of this myself. If I need to just put on a calming meditation, I'll probably end up checking Reddit, and my email, and maybe the news for good measure. And all of that will interrupt sleep.

Blue Light Affects Sleep

There is, of course, also the issue of blue light, which devices like phones emit from their screens. Blue light shifts your circadian rhythm. That means it'll shift your whole rhythm later so your body will prefer to stay up later and wake up later. Phones also make noises, and those late-night calls, dings, and alerts from your apps and emails can also keep you up at night.

Avoid Your Phone Before Bed

I recommend using an actual old-school alarm clock and sleeping with your phone outside your bedroom. Some people don’t feel comfortable doing that in the event of an emergency, but make sure you sleep with your phone at least beyond reach. Then, you won’t wake up, see the time, and think, “Well, I've got my phone here, so maybe I'll just check my email and check Reddit or see if somebody texted me.”

Avoiding your phone before bed is one of the best recommendations I have when it comes to sleep.

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