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See Inside Scientific American Mind Volume 23, Issue 6

Bright Screens Could Delay Bedtime

Using a tablet or computer in the late evening disrupts the body's melatonin production
tablet, tablet light, girl holding tablet, melatonin production



STEVEN PUETZER Getty Images

If you have trouble sleeping, laptop or tablet use at bedtime might be to blame, new research suggests. Mariana Figueiro of the Lighting Research Center at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and her team showed that two hours of iPad use at maximum brightness was enough to suppress people's normal nighttime release of melatonin, a key hormone in the body's clock, or circadian system. Melatonin tells your body that it is night, helping to make you sleepy. If you delay that signal, Figueiro says, you could delay sleep. Other research indicates that “if you do that chronically, for many years, it can lead to disruption of the circadian system,” sometimes with serious health consequences, she explains.

The dose of light is important, Figueiro says; the brightness and exposure time, as well as the wavelength, determine whether it affects melatonin. Light in the blue-and-white range emitted by today's tablets can do the trick—as can laptops and desktop computers, which emit even more of the disrupting light but are usually positioned farther from the eyes, which ameliorates the light's effects. The team designed light-detector goggles and had subjects wear them during late-evening tablet use. The light dose measurements from the goggles correlated with hampered melatonin production.

On the bright side, a morning shot of screen time could be used as light therapy for seasonal affective disorder and other light-based problems. Figueiro hopes manufacturers will “get creative” with tomorrow's tablets, making them more “circadian friendly,” perhaps even switching to white text on a black screen at night to minimize the light dose. Until then, do your sleep schedule a favor and turn down the brightness of your glowing screens before bed—or switch back to good old-fashioned books.

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