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Sleep Expert Smartphones and their effect on sleep - are you addicted to the screen?

Tom Coleman says if you don’t know what the product is with social media companies, then you are the product.

EVERYONE TODAY SEEMS to be busier and more stressed than ever, with less time and feeling like demands keep coming at all times. With the clocks set to change at the end of this month, we’ll hear more people refer to how tired it has made them again.

Never before has the rejuvenating power of sleep been more important, yet something is stealing our sleep and robbing us of its restorative powers.

Do you scroll on your phone at night? What people might not realise is that excessive use of a smartphone is a form of addiction, albeit a normalised, legal one.

Studies have shown that scrolling social media causes spikes in the levels of dopamine in the brain, which is the same chemical released through the intake of recreational drugs. According to Harvard University – “positive social stimuli will similarly result in a release of dopamine, reinforcing whatever behaviour preceded it.”

How is scrolling at night affecting my sleep?

Most people know that exposure to blue/white light is not good for their sleep. Blue and white light frequencies shut down melatonin (the sleep hormone) production in the brain, but in my opinion this is not the biggest disrupter of sleep when it comes to the phone.

Smartphones have an alerting or stimulating effect on the brain and tap into pleasure chemicals that are very hard to just switch off once you’ve started. Reading a book, by comparison, has far less stimulating effect and soothes us into a sleep transition. 

Why is it so addictive? 

Because app companies have paid neuroscientists millions of euros to make it that way. Neuroscientists have figured out strategies to hijack the most powerful reward pathway in human evolution – “the dopaminergic mesolimbic system”.

Any activity that may promote our survival as a species must be rewarded instantly: – eating certain foods, money, sex, exercise and lots of other activities.

Dopamine is that sense of excitement, in anticipation of something good, which includes everything from holidays to the DHL driver showing up with another package from your latest online shopping splurge.  

Dopamine motivates us to do things we think will bring us pleasure. Even if the activity that’s bringing us pleasure is self-destructive, we’ll be driven to do the same behaviour again and again. Scientists have been using dopamine as the yardstick to measure the addictive potential of any behaviour or substance since 1957 when it was first identified. 

Since the advent of social media apps, companies have been battling for your time and attention. If you don’t know what the product is, you are the product, your time is the product but at what cost? Sleep is the first thing that has suffered, and with that, we lose the physical and mental health protective qualities that sleep brings. 

How bad can it be, I just need some “me time”?

We now live in a digitally obsessed world of instant gratification where we are unable to withstand more than five seconds of boredom. The World Health Organization tells us that 970 million people globally are living with mental health issues and Harvard School of Public Health tells us “Studies are beginning to show links between smartphone usage and increased levels of anxiety and depression and poor sleep quality”.

We really should question why we are sacrificing our health each evening to look at cat videos on social media.  

The evidence is suggesting that consumption of social media seems to compromise our attention spans and other crucial cognitive functions. When consuming social media, we are constantly living in our limbic brain, which processes emotions, rather than in our prefrontal cortex, which deals with future planning and problem-solving and is important for personality development. The result is that we are losing our ability to delay gratification, deal with frustration and solve problems.

That “me time” that you all crave is most certainly an important part of your day and your mental health. In a world of ever-increasing demands and deadlines, carving out some time and some space for self-care has never been more difficult or important. It must become a priority, not just for you but for the whole family, including our children. After all, is sleep not a form of self-care?

What about our teenagers and Children?

A 2018 study for the University of San Diego with over 40,000 children aged 2-17 years found that more than one hour of phone use per day was associated with lower mental wellbeing, less curiosity, lower self-control, more distractibility, more difficulty making friends, less emotional stability, being more difficult to care for and inability to finish tasks.  

The mounting evidence is alarming regarding how extended smartphone use impacts sleep and psychological and social well-being, with other studies demonstrating that excessive screen exposure in early years is associated with poorer cognitive and social-emotional development, especially working memory capacity. 

In late 2023 Mark Zuckerberg was called into the US Senate where class actions were filed against Facebook and Instagram alleging that the company knew about the harmful effects its social media products were having on children and young teens. Class action lawsuits claimed that Meta’s social media platforms were intentionally designed to be dangerously addictive, causing children and teenagers to consume content that increases the risk of sleep disorders, eating disorders, depression and suicide. Zuckerberg apologised to those directly in the Senate in 2024.

The news for adults is no better with smartphone use being associated with difficulties in cognitive and emotional regulation, impulsivity, impaired cognitive function, shyness, lower self-esteem and sleep. Extended smartphone use is also associated with medical problems which include sleep problems, reduced physical activity levels, unhealthy eating habits and changes in the brain’s grey matter volume. Essentially, we are volunteering our intelligence and becoming less smart! 

How can I manage my use?

There is a way out. We can create a pathway out of this virtual world and into more meaningful, healthy activities that benefit our sleep and mental health. Every person and family is different, so individuals need to find solutions that work for them. Here are some tips: 

  1. Defining Boundaries — Set an alarm that lets you know when it’s time to put the phone away before sleep, giving yourself enough time to wind down. I call this the reverse snooze button. 

  2. Mindful use — Limit mindless scrolling on social media or binge-watching videos, and instead focus on activities that add value to your life.

  3. Digital Sabbaticals — Consider taking periodic breaks from digital devices. Use this time to recharge, reflect and engage in activities that nourish your mind and body.

  4. Bedroom Activity – You can listen to anything you want in the bedroom but no scrolling. That means a podcast, music, relaxing sounds that will help you fall asleep. 

  5. Practice Patience — lead by example in the family. It will take time to retrain your brain. 

We all know that we are spending too much of our precious time scrolling. I want people to stop mistaking comfort and distraction for relaxation.

You are not “relaxing” if you’re scrolling. Any relaxation activity will calm the body, the mind or the emotions. Scrolling stimulates us at many levels and is robbing us of the ultimate act of self-care — sleep.  

Let’s see if we can start to take our time back, our health, our sleep and our lives will thank us. Reclaim your sleep and supercharge your life. 

Tom Coleman is a Sleep Expert and Health Scientist who has worked with large multinationals, elite athletes, and thousands of individuals. He’s recently launched ‘The Sleep & Health Podcast,’ dedicated to helping people sleep better. You’ll find more at

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