I’ll admit it, I have a bad Instagram habit. Not only am I glued to the screen every time I get a small window of opportunity—while waiting for a Zoom meeting to start, or standing in line at the grocery store—but as a night owl, I find that lurking and snooping to see who my boyfriend’s cousin’s ex-girlfriend is now dating is so much more gratifying when I do it late at night. Lately, I’ve gotten hooked on Insta Reelz. What started out as a quick way to unwind has evolved into a two-hour nightly regimen that keeps me up way too long and has me feeling groggy in the morning. So I checked in with Dr. Frida Rångtell, PhD, sleep educator and science advisor at Sleep Cycle, to find out exactly how my before-bed scrolling habit is affecting my sleep.
This Is What Happens to Your Brain When You Stop Looking at Your Phone Before Bed
First, what exactly is supposed to happen to your brain when you’re sleeping?
“Our sleeping brain activity has been classified into four different stages that we cycle through during the night,” explained Dr. Rångtell. “There is the light sleep stage, which is when we drift between wake and sleep. Then there’s the deep sleep stage which is related to recovery, brain cleaning, tissue repair and rebuilding of muscles. That’s followed by sleep stage two, which is where we stay most of the night and has been linked to memory processes. The last stage is REM sleep which happens towards the morning and is characterized by muscle paralysis, occasional muscle twitches and rapid eye movements. The brain itself is highly active, resembling when we are awake.”
So, how does pre-bedtime Instagram lurking affect your sleep?
While the jury is still out on how long-term usage of devices like phones and computers before bed adversely affects our sleep, Dr. Rångtell says that evening use of electronic devices can be linked to delayed bedtimes, taking longer time to fall asleep and shortened sleep. “Sleep requires us to wind down, and there is a risk that using your phone and other electronics before bed could instead be stimulating and feed your brain with exciting content,” she warned.
“Stressful work emails, horrible breaking news, or binge-watching your favorite TV show might increase stress, excitement or anxiety, and make it more difficult to turn off in time for bed. You may find it more difficult to wind down and find yourself up past your bedtime. The screen lights could also increase the feeling of alertness under certain conditions, further delaying sleep.” Check, check and check.
What happens to your brain when you start putting your phone away before bedtime?
Research on the benefits of hiding your phone in your nightstand before bed is still ongoing, but there are several benefits that Dr. Rångtell predicts. “I would speculate that [putting your phone away] could increase the chances of winding down for sleep,” she says. “We may find ourselves going to bed on time more often and avoiding additional stress or anxious feelings, since we would limit distractions. It is also possible that avoiding screen light in the evening could have a positive impact on our circadian rhythms.”
3 Ways to Help Your Brain Get Adequate Rest
1. Give yourself time to wind down. The lure of social media will always be strong, but it’s important to put your phone away at least 30 minutes before you go to sleep. “It signals to your body that it’s time for bed,” says Dr. Rångtell. “In general, it's good to have some time for quietness and reflection before we turn the lights off for sleep. Otherwise, we run the risk of our brain spinning with thoughts and worries when we want to relax.”
2. Make the bedroom a screen-free zone. If your hand tends to wander toward your phone in the middle of the night, one solution would be keeping the device in an area (or room) that’s out of reach from your bed. That goes for tablets, computers and the TV, too.
3. Find a substitute. Swap the Instagram scrolling with more sleep-friendly activities, like reading, meditating or journaling. If you like listening to podcasts or audiobooks, Dr. Rångtell suggests using Bluetooth speakers so that you don't need to have your phone close by. Set the tunes to turn off automatically with a timer, so you aren’t tempted to look at your phone before you drift off.