How Smartphones Disrupt Sleep

January 23, 2016

Apple’s forthcoming iOS update promises to incorporate a feature called Night Shift that could help people sleep better. But what is it about smartphones that can mess with our slumber?

There is a growing body of research showing that exposure to bright blue light can disrupt people’s sleep patterns, and this is exactly the kind of light produced by modern LCD displays such as those on smartphones and tablets.

But Apple is hoping to help users preserve their beauty sleep. [9 Odd Ways Your Tech Devices May Injure You]

Along with various other health-focused apps, the new version of Apple’s mobile operating system, iOS 9.3, will include the Night Shift feature. This app will use the device’s clock and geolocation to determine what time the sun sets and will automatically shift the phone’s display color to the warmer, or redder, end of the light spectrum until the following morning.

Apple is not the first company to attempt to tackle this problem — apps like f.lux and Twilight have been around for years and are designed to make similar color adjustments. But Apple’s update signals growing awareness of the potential negative health effects of using smartphones and tablets late at night.

“Blue light plays havoc with your sleep by disrupting your circadian rhythms,” said Anne-Marie Chang, a neuroscientist and sleep expert at Pennsylvania State University. Chang published research last January showing that evening use of e-readers disturbed users’ sleep patterns and reduced their alertness the following morning.

Circadian rhythms are 24-hour cycles that control the timing of many physiological processes in animals, plants, fungi and even some bacteria. In animals, these rhythms determine sleeping and feeding patterns, as well as brain activity, hormone production and cell regeneration.

Studies have shown that disturbing these rhythms can increase a person’s chances of developing a variety of serious diseases. “Misalignment or disruption of these rhythms may result in acute and/or chronic health problems, including obesity, diabetes, cancer risk and cardiovascular disease,” Chang told Live Science.

In mammals, these rhythms are controlled by a so-called circadian clock — a group of nerve cells in the hypothalamus region of the brain called the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN). This “body clock” is sensitive to a variety of environmental cues, but principally light, Chang said.

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