Hey sleep enthusiast, have you been wondering how to reduce your screen time? As a sleep coach and former insomniac, I know how tempting it can be to reach for the phone when you’re lying in bed at night, worrying about whether sleep will come. Similarly when you feel robbed of your rest after waking up in the hours before your alarm goes off. It can provide entertainment, relief or even something productive whilst you’re in a frustrating place.
I get that you may be reading this blog article about how to reduce phone time whilst you are using the phone, so it’s not that all screen time is ‘bad’. It’s about having awareness of the time spent using the phone, as well as the choices we have around phone habits, in order to support well-being and sleep. Which is what we will explore in this blog article.
Why are phones so alluring?
Do you find time disappearing into social media when you just intended to take a short break? Or how about getting drawn into doomscrolling? Maybe your phone plays a part in revenge bedtime procrastination, a trend where people stay up later than they intended, despite knowing they have to be up early in the morning.
Phones can be a source of temptation because they offer constant stimulation through notifications, social media, and easily accessible entertainment. Engaging in these experiences on your phone can trigger the release of dopamine, known as the 'feel good hormone,' in the brain.
How dopamine drives our phone use
Dopamine is part of the brain's reward system, responsible for generating feelings of pleasure and motivation. This kind of rewarding stimulation available at the touch of a phone can be tempting to indulge in. Especially when it offers a distraction from dealing with more difficult tasks in life that can’t be simply swiped or scrolled away. The challenge comes when we find ourselves seeking the release of dopamine by repeating the same behavior excessively. This is how addictions can be developed, creating a sense of wanting and craving that drives us to keep getting more of the pleasurable experience.
It may sound dramatic, but the addictive quality of phone design has been acknowledged by tech leaders. Chamath Palihapitiya, former Vice President of User Growth at Facebook has been widely quoted as saying he felt ‘tremendous guilt’ because ‘the short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops that we have created are destroying how society works’. Yikes!
How mobile phones and electronics addiction affects sleep
As cited in an abstract of a research article about digital addiction and sleep from 2022, The World Health Organisation has ‘formally recognized addiction to digital technology (connected devices) as a worldwide problem’:
‘Where excessive online activity and internet use lead to inability to manage time, energy, and attention during daytime and produce disturbed sleep patterns or insomnia during nighttime… once the urge to be online has become uncontrollable, it is always accompanied by severe sleep loss, emotional distress, depression, and memory dysfunction.’
With mobile phone use having the potential to negatively affect well-being and sleep, it’s worth questioning how much time you may spend using it.
Can a digital detox help with sleep?
There has been increasing interest in the idea of digital detoxes over recent years, where people totally abstain from using their digital devices for a few days, often a weekend, to care for their well-being and sleep. Research shows mixed results regarding the effectiveness of digital detoxing for improving sleep, although reduced smartphone use and decreased depression symptoms have been observed.
Much like an extreme diet, digital detoxes can have some impact but there is no guarantee that either the results or the practice of total digital abstinence will be sustainable. Meaning such a drastic change to your behaviour can take a lot of willpower, as well as dealing with potential boredom, loneliness and other challenging feelings that may come.
One of the Restful Sleep core values is to advocate for doing things in gentle ways. Following on from the concept of breaking new habits down into their smallest possible version and aiming to get 1% better every day to make change manageable, the Restful Sleep approach for how to more gently manage your screen time is with ‘digital intermittent fasting’
Digital intermittent fasting
Intermittent fasting is a way of limiting food intake by scheduling regular blocks of time each day for fasting and other times for eating. By using these principles with your phone, you can create set periods of phone usage, with focused time to make the most of using your phone during specific hours, as well as intentional times to disconnect for extended periods so you can be more present in your leisure time.
If you work from 9 am to 5 pm, you could take inspiration from the 16:8 intermittent fasting schedule and set your phone use hours from 11 am to 7 pm. That could look like turning your phone on for the first time during a morning coffee break. You’d have time during your lunch hour to check in on social media, along with any messages and emails. When you finish work, your phone is accessible for any final actions you may need to complete. Then it’s time to disconnect and focus on activities you enjoy. Getting that feel-good, dopamine reward in alternative ways! By restricting your phone use to the middle of the day, space is created to explore a different start and end to the day, without phone distractions creating unnecessary stress or distractions. This time could be spent more peacefully doing those stretches you’ve been meaning to try or being more present with loved ones.
The digital intermittent fasting timings also help with sleep hygiene recommendations of avoiding screens before bed. That’s because blue light can disrupt the circadian rhythms of the body, bringing more alertness when what’s really needed is to relax.
Your way to Restful Sleep is all about your choices
How are you feeling about your phone use now, sleep enthusiast? Are you open to trying the digital intermittent fasting approach suggested? Or might there be some other timings that could better fit with your lifestyle and commitments?
When it comes to creating habits and routines that support more consistent, Restful Sleep, it’s all about choices that support your individual needs, priorities and preferences. You get an idea of how that can look with this sleep success story from a former, doomscrolling client found new habits that helped him to get consistent sleep.
Stay curious, Maša.