Can Wi-Fi Devices Really Disrupt Your Sleep?
There's no escaping Wi-Fi. You use it to connect your computer and phone to the internet so you can work, shop, and look up the answer to any random question that pops into your head. You wear a Wi-Fi-powered watch that allows you to log your steps and check your email. Maybe you even have a sleep tracker or smart bed that relies on Wi-Fi to tell you about your sleep habits.
Just how safe is it to sleep in such proximity to Wi-Fi routers and other Wi-Fi-enabled devices? If you believe everything you read, all that exposure to Wi-Fi causes everything from insomnia to impaired brain function to cardiac stress to potentially even cancer. But it turns out there is a lot of misinformation out there. Here's what you need to know about Wi-Fi and your sleep.
Wi-Fi: a science lesson
Your Wi-Fi router uses radiofrequency (RF) energy, a form of electromagnetic radiation, to bring a wireless internet connection to your devices. Not all radiation is the same, though.
Ionizing radiation is the dangerous kind. This category includes radiation from X-rays, gamma rays, and some ultraviolet light. Ionizing radiation can break or change your DNA, which can potentially lead to cancer.
Wi-Fi, on the other hand, is a form of non-ionizing radiation. Non-ionizing radiation includes everything else on the radiation spectrum, from low-energy radio waves used in walkie-talkies to higher energy radio waves used to power a microwave. Bluetooth is another form of non-ionizing radiation.
Non-ionizing radiation doesn't carry enough energy to alter your DNA the way ionizing radiation can. Your Wi-Fi router, in particular, produces only a tiny amount of energy—about 1 watt of power—and that minuscule amount is limited to a bubble-like cloud around the router.
Is Wi-Fi radiation dangerous?
As with just about any technology, there is disagreement over how much is too much. In the case of Wi-Fi radiation, some experts say excessive exposure can be harmful to your health. That's because some studies point to a link between excessive exposure to radiofrequency fields and certain types of cancer, including brain, breast, and leukemia.
That said, according to a study published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives, "there is no cancer site for which there is consistent evidence, or even an individual study providing strong evidence, that occupational exposure to RFs affects risk."
Other studies have found a connection between mobile phone usage and brain tumors, however, the Environmental Health Perspectives study authors note that "current evidence is inconclusive regarding cancer risk after heavy RF exposure from mobile phones."
When it comes to sleep, some people claim to have developed a syndrome called electro-hypersensitivity, where any exposure to radiofrequency fields interferes with sleep. The World Health Organization (WHO) doesn't recognize electro-hypersensitivity as a real disorder.
According to WHO, “From all evidence accumulated so far, no adverse short- or long-term health effects have been shown to occur from the RF signals produced by base stations (cell phone towers)." Because wireless networks produce even lower RF than these towers, WHO added that “no adverse health effects are expected from exposure to them."
Related: Losing sleep over sleep trackers
What to do with your Wi-Fi devices while you sleep
If you're concerned about Wi-Fi, there are steps you can take to limit your exposure. For starters, set up your Wi-Fi router in a location away from where you and your family spend the majority of your time. And when you go to bed, simply turn off the Wi-Fi router and your wireless devices (or set your cell phone to airplane mode if you keep it in the bedroom).
While research is limited on whether Wi-Fi is hazardous to your health, there are proven benefits to powering down your devices and keeping them in another room while you snooze. For one thing, the blue light emitted by screens interferes with melatonin production and can disrupt your sleep. Then there's the distraction factor: If the phone isn't on your nightstand, there's no temptation to scroll social feeds instead of winding down by reading a book.
Want to take things a step further? You can always use an ethernet cable for your computer instead of a Wi-Fi router, a landline instead of a cellphone, and a wired earpiece instead of holding a cell phone against your ear.
You may want to skip the wearable sleep device or smart bed if you're trying to limit your Wi-Fi exposure. Smart beds typically need Wi-Fi running overnight to work, but some sleep trackers will still work if you put them into airplane mode when you go to sleep. Check the manufacturer's website to find out if you need to keep Wi-Fi or Bluetooth enabled when you use one of these devices.
The bottom line: “It is impossible to avoid all exposure to radiofrequency fields," says David O. Carpenter, MD, a public health physician and director of the Institute for Health and the Environment at the University of Albany. “So just using common sense to limit exposure is the right approach."
Can't stop scrolling through your phone before you hit the sheets? Here are three ways to break up with your phone before bed.