Your Cell Phone Is Making You Sleepy

On Tuesday, Dec. 5, professor and sleep researcher Dr. Roxanne Prichard came to Colorado College and shared her research on the effects of cell phone use among college students on their sleep, or lack thereof. Prichard is a professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of St. Thomas, specializing her research in all things related to sleep. The information she shared in her presentation depicts a society controlled by smart phone technology — so much so that it is rewiring our human instincts altogether.

In addition to being a professor, Prichard is a mother of a daughter in kindergarten. Not only is she noticing the effects of cell phone use on the college students she teaches, she is also seeing, first-hand, the new wave of technological learning for newer generations such as her daughter’s. In fact, she said that her daughter came home from kindergarten at the beginning of this year with an iPad as an educational tool provided by the school.

Photo By Angel Martinez

Our increased reliance on technology is physically changing our brains. One of Prichard’s primary areas of emphasis was on human instinct, connecting our modern bodies back to our ancestors in the Stone Age. When our caveman-era ancestors were searching for food or water, they experienced a stress reaction in their bodies. That reaction, though unpleasant, created drive to suppress the hunger — ultimately hunting down or picking food with urgency. The modern human body still experiences those same stress reactions, though their causes arise from drastically different tasks: anything from writing an essay to paying bills. The outlets in which we suppress these stressors nowadays are not physically exerting and are typically resolved through using a phone or computer, leading to confusing signals within the body.

Another modern change in lifestyle is the human perception of daytime and nighttime. Just a few centuries back, human life solely operated on natural light. Humans used to wake up with the sun, work primarily outside all day, and go to bed when the sun went down; thus, sleep depended on light. In 2018, with laptops, cell phones, and tablets more prevalent than ever, technology tricks our bodies into believing that day and night are switched, creating detrimental sleep issues. The brightness of technological screens keeps people from becoming tired in the evening because they are simulating daytime light. This disturbs sleep patterns, making people sleepy during the day. Moreover, now that the majority of people in the U.S. don’t work outdoor jobs, we spend most of the day inside a classroom or at office desks with this increased tiredness, simulating nighttime for our bodies. Essentially, our bodies are getting progressively more out of whack.

This flip of day and night time stimulants is especially prominent in college students. College students typically don’t reach the recommended eight hours of sleep per night and sleep time has dwindled even more with the ease of scrolling on social apps from under the covers. The majority of a college student’s day is spent in a classroom and in a library. Nighttime on a college campus is more stimulating than nighttime in a normal household because of studying, socializing, and alcohol consumption. College students also have a tendency to use social media apps like Instagram and Facebook at high frequency, bordering on unhealthy quantities of screen time. 

Luckily, Prichard’s team of researchers found that regulated CPU, cell phone use, did not have any detrimental effect on the rates of sleep, academic performance, stress, anxiety, and depression among college students. However, they did find that many hours of daily, excessive, unhealthy CPU correlated with experiencing a myriad of health issues, including anxiety, lower GPA, and disturbed sleep patterns. While CPU seems like something we could manage better, it is difficult to curb the amount of time in front of a computer screen since it is the hub of academic work nowadays.

Acknowledging this, Prichard provided some useful alternatives to limit screen time and get the body back on track. She personally found that she checks her phone less often by simply reducing the number of applications that send her notifications. In addition, by turning the notifications off for most apps, she spends less time mindlessly checking her phone, and only checks it when something of urgency comes up. 

In addition to app changes, Prichard also suggested blocking the blue light coming from phones, computers, and tablets. According to The Sleep Doctor website, blue light, the bright light that radiates from tech screens, severely suppresses melatonin production in the body, keeping you awake and stimulated. There are computer-screen-purposed glasses on the market (with or without prescription) that simply block the blue light coming from your computer, decreasing eye strain and headaches and allowing for a better night’s sleep. 

Lastly, Prichard suggested tracking how much time you spend on your phone throughout the day. To do this on an iPhone, go to “Settings,” then “Battery,” and scroll down to “Battery Usage.” If you click on the tiny clock symbol in the upper right-hand corner, you will be able to see the exact minutes that you spend on each app per day. Keeping track of these will allow you to notice, control, and ultimately decrease the amount of time you spend checking your phone.

Overall, Prichard highlighted how important sleep is to our well-being, and how our reliance on technology is wearing us down at a rapid rate. It’s time we turn off our phones and take back our sleep. 

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