Wellness influencers and experts alike constantly tell us that avoiding screens an hour or two before bed is vital for a good night’s rest. As much as I have heard this advice, I’m guilty of scrolling through Instagram or watching another episode of Golden Bachelor before I turn out the lights every single night. I’ve always seen this as a bad habit that I just cannot break, always feeling guilty knowing that what I was doing was “bad for me.” So I wanted to dig into the research and identify once and for all: Is screentime before bed as bad as people say, and is this habit causing me long-term damage or is it maybe a habit I can accept—and even enjoy—as long as it’s not immediately impacting my sleep? What I found out may surprise you…
Why research screen time before bed negatively affects sleep patterns
If you’re like me and love a show or TikTok session before bed, bad news: We can’t deny that several studies show blue light can interrupt sleep patterns and interfere with our circadian rhythm by suppressing melatonin (the hormone that promotes sleep). Sleep researchers suggest that blue light exposure within two hours of bedtime can be the most disruptive to sleep quality and the number of hours spent sleeping at night. Furthermore, consuming certain types of media (such as world news) has also been shown to increase mental stimulation and anxiety, making it difficult to fall asleep. Most of us aren’t turning on the news channel before bed, but we are going to social media accounts and inadvertently seeing news headlines or updates from friends that may be impacting our stress levels more than we realize.
But screen time before bed may not be as bad as you think…
It’s hard to argue with the research: many studies show that avoiding screens 1-2 hours before bed is ideal for optimal sleep so that you can properly relax your nervous system and the body is able to produce the melatonin it needs. But if we’re able to easily fall asleep while watching Gilmore Girls and wake up feeling refreshed, are screens before bed really that bad? More science is emerging concerning sleep and media consumption that could offer an alternative perspective. Although the studies are limited, some studies and sleep experts suggest watching familiar shows or humorous videos before bed can actually help with relaxation and promote better sleep. A 2022 study on media use before bed noted that a light-hearted show can increase total sleep time and time spent in REM sleep (the deepest part of sleep). In this same study, media use one hour before bed was also associated with earlier bedtime in some individuals.
Another study examined individuals who use TV and social media to rest after being social (where my introverts at!?) and found that media use can help reduce stress by offering a sense of restoration before bedtime. In other words, you want to avoid anything that may increase mental stimulation (i.e. something new that you need to pay attention to), but videos that feel comforting and you have seen before may help promote mental relaxation. Thanks to my Gilmore Girls obsession, this was already something I knew to be true in my own life: images or videos that feel comforting can shift your focus away from daily stressors, ultimately allowing the body to relax.
Now to the blue light of it all: It’s hard to argue with the amount of research that proves blue light suppresses melatonin production. However, exactly how much it suppresses melatonin production varies. A few studies suggest that blue light emitted by cell phones or TV show inconsistent data, and one 2019 study suggests that circadian responses to light are unclear; this could mean that although most studies do suggest blue light is not ideal before bed, it does not necessarily mean that all people are affected by blue light in the same way. In other words: more than enough research proves that blue light disrupts melatonin production, but the degree of disruption can vary from person to person. For some people, a small amount of blue light greatly disrupts sleep, while others don’t feel affected. My key takeaway: An episode of Gilmore Girls before bed helps me relax, and because I fall asleep quickly, stay asleep throughout the night, and wake up the next morning feeling refreshed, why change what’s not negatively affecting me?
How to mindfully consume content for the best sleep
If you do choose to watch TV or scroll on your phone before bed, it’s important to be mindful of your content choices so you are using content to help you relax rather than increase stimulation or stress. Content that is light-hearted, warm, or funny like your favorite sitcom (ideally something you have seen before, so you’re not tempted to find out what happens) is a much better option than a drama, mystery, news show, or scary movie (for obvious reasons); the goal is to use content to relax your nervous system.
Looking to hack your content-before-bed further? Tune into nature videos, as visuals of nature are shown to have a soothing and relaxing effect. Prefer a social media scroll over Netflix and chill? Try creating a “wind down” playlist of short clips or accounts that are familiar, light-hearted, and even calming (like ASMR or nature videos). This way, you can tune into the playlist before bed and flag to your brain that it’s almost time for sleep.
Tips to decrease the effect of screens on sleep quality
Dim the screen
Since a major problem with screens before bed is the actual blue light, there is a way to lessen the blue light a screen emits. Decrease blue light emissions by setting your phone to “night mode” or turning on the “blue light filter” a few hours before you go to sleep. Blue light filters and screen dimming are good ways to reduce blue light stimulation to the eyes and help stimulate the natural process of melatonin rising in the evening. No blue light filter or night mode on your device? Blue light glasses are an easy addition to lessen the blue light that your eyes are taking in.
Set a curfew for your screens
If you do want to limit screen time but are having difficulty breaking the habit of scrolling before bed, set time limits in your settings to turn off apps and accessibility at a particular time of night. Slowly move the time forward until you notice a change in your sleep quality and phone habits. For example, if you want to be asleep by 11 p.m., set the curfew for 10:55 p.m. so you’re not tempted to stay up late scrolling. The next night, set the curfew to 10:50 p.m., and then 10:45 p.m., until you’re no longer tempted to scroll before bed. If you like to watch TV before bed or fall asleep to the TV, most devices have sleep timers to turn off at a certain time so the TV won’t run all night if you do fall asleep while watching (possibly disrupting sleep through blue light emission or sound).
Turn off notifications
Picture this: You have identified that a light scroll through TikTok or Instagram stories actually helps you unwind and calm down before bed. You’re only enjoying videos or accounts that you know are peaceful to you. You’ve dimmed your blue light and set a curfew so you’re off your phone by the time you want to be asleep. But as you’re enjoying your evening scroll, you receive a text from a friend gossiping about another friend, an email pops up from your boss about a meeting for tomorrow, or the person you just started flirting with DMs you to ask about your plans for the weekend. Now, instead of a relaxing scroll through nature videos and ASMR, your mind is racing about friend drama, the next day’s to-do list, or weekend plans. In other words, you likely won’t fall asleep for hours and will wake up feeling groggy and exhausted. A PSA if you are on any device before bed: Turn off your notifications (yes, all notifications). Remember that this is your time to unwind for yourself, so don’t let anyone else interrupt it.