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What All That Social Media Scrolling Is Doing to Your Sleep

These days, it’s hard to disconnect from social media. With health experts recommending we practice social distancing for potentially months, scrolling through Facebook and Instagram has become the de facto way for many of us to stay in the loop with friends and loved ones. And the near-constant barrage of news updates about coronavirus has plenty of us glued to our phones, refreshing our Twitter feeds every few minutes. All of this can lead to some pretty poor sleep—and not just because it ratchets up your anxiety.

The connection between social media and sleep

Researchers who study our social media usage and its effects agree that it impacts sleep. But they can only tell us there is a correlation between social media usage and sleep. No one has yet demonstrated that usage actually causes sleep disruption.

Obviously, your sleep patterns will be disrupted if you’re chatting, posting, or tweeting later than when your body tells you it needs to shut down for the day. This is called “direct sleep displacement.”

On an emotional level, multiple studies have tied social media use to increased risk for depression and anxiety—two of the biggest contributors to insomnia. In adolescents, it has also been tied to low self-esteem. Researchers attribute this in part to teenagers’ tendency to compare themselves unfavorably to their peers. Of course, there are plenty of adults who can’t sleep for worrying that their own lives aren’t nearly as perfect as their friends’ selective online self-presentations.

If worry isn’t keeping you awake, the blue light from the smartphones and other devices we use to access social media will disrupt sleep by delaying the body’s natural circadian rhythms that are so acutely tied to light and darkness.

“The blue light on our phones mimics daylight and sends signals to the brain that the time to sleep has not yet arrived,” says Sanam Hafeez, PsyD, Columbia University neuropsychologist. “While most phones have a nighttime mode nowadays, the constant movement of the retina as we scroll through Instagram, Facebook, LinkedIn, Tumblr, TikTok, and every other app out there affects the process of inducing sleep.”

Some people, particularly adolescents, actually look at online media as a sleep aid. The jury is out on social media’s effectiveness compared to, say, music videos or photos, because its uniquely interactive nature means it tends to stimulate and promote arousal rather than relaxation. “Psychologically,” says Hafeez, “social media can keep you preoccupied to the point where sleep begins to get postponed as you keep interacting with your feed.”

Nighttime use—especially close to bedtime—has the biggest negative impact on sleep. A study of 1,763 young American adults aged 19-32 years found that those who checked their social media within the 30 minutes before they go to bed were more than one and a half times more likely to experience disturbed sleep than those who used it earlier in the day.

Although we can’t draw a straight line between social media use and poor sleep, research lets us say this much: The more you use social media, the more likely you are to have poor sleep because both the overall time and frequency of use have been tied to sleep problems.

Teens, social media, and poor sleep

Most research on the relationship between social media use and sleep focuses on adolescents and young adults mainly because young people are the strongest users of social media. Their experiences offer lessons (and cautionary tales) for older folks who might be more engaged with social media than many of their age peers.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that adolescents aged 13-18 years get 8-10 hours of sleep in every 24-hour period. Yet fewer than one in three U.S. high school-age students get the recommended amount of sleep.

The American Academy of Pediatrics reports growing concern because insufficient sleep among adolescents has implications for mental health, academic performance, and safety. It also negatively affects cognitive performance, mood, immune function, cardiovascular risk, weight, and metabolism.

A University of Pittsburgh study of 1,788 young U.S. adults aged 19-32 years found they spent a median of 61 minutes per day on social media. More than half of them reported medium or high levels of sleep disturbance.

A larger University of Glasgow study of 11,872 adolescents aged 13-15 years found an average social media use of one to three hours per day. A third (33.7%) were classed as low users (less than one hour); 13.9% were high users (three to five hours), and 20.8% were very high users (five or more hours). Girls reported spending more time on social media than boys.

Not surprisingly, heavier use was associated with poor sleep patterns. Very high social media users were more likely to report problems falling asleep and waking up on school days and trouble falling back asleep after awakening during the night.

The University of Glasgow researchers emphasize that research on the effects of adolescents’ social media use should be measured within the context of what is currently considered “normal” usage. They note that most research tends to focus on “addicted” social media users, adding that comparing higher users’ sleep patterns against average users “can better support practical and realistic discussions” of adolescents’ social media use.

Related: 3 ways to break up with your phone before bed

How to keep social media from ruining your sleep

Consider these practical steps to make sure your, or your teen’s, social media use doesn’t turn into an antisocial intruder on your need for healthy sleep:

  • Turn off your smartphone and devices. “Give yourself a deadline by which smart devices should be placed away,” says Hafeez.
  • Set time limits. “The first thing to do when attempting to minimize social media-related insomnia and anxiety is to assess your current social media usage and find a way to keep track of this metric,” says Hafeez. There are apps you can download to prevent you from accessing your social media accounts.
  • Don’t keep your phone next to the bed. Besides helping avoid the snooze button on your alarm, “it is also a helpful measure to take to ensure that, even if your mind is still winding down, you don’t use social media as a crutch to preoccupy your mind,” says Hafeez.
  • Develop a relaxing and entertaining pre-bedtime routine without social media. “This means,” says Hafeez, “that once your deadline hits and your phone is charging on the opposite side of the room, you begin your nighttime routine.”
  • Take a break from social media. As in most areas of life, moderation and healthy boundaries are keys to using social media in a way that will support your overall health and well-being. “There is no mystical power our electronics have over us,” says Hafeez. “We must simply learn to evaluate our habits and reconfigure our bedtime routine so that it is conducive to a restful and re-energizing sleep.”

Need help unwinding before bed? Try these relaxing self-care ideas.