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The irony of connectivity: smartphones, sensory overload, and sleep

In the 21st century, every pocket and purse conceals a portal to the world; smartphones. They have become both a boon and a potential bane. Their profound influence extends beyond personal realms, shaping societal behaviours, norms, and even our biological rhythms. While they promise unprecedented connectivity, the psychological, social, and physiological toll they might exact has become a subject of concern and contemplation.

The sensory toll of public smartphone use

Once, public spaces like trains, parks, and cafes were havens of personal reflection or communal connection. Personally, after the end of a long day, I look forward to relaxing in the quiet carriage on the train, but have noticed how the peace is often shattered and I am surprised by the ferocity of my feelings towards those responsible for what feels like terribly intrusive noise.

What is going on? How has it become acceptable to shout your business into your phone regardless of the environment you are in? Smartphones, while connecting us to distant friends and vast information, have simultaneously introduced a unique form of sensory chaos into our shared environments. Who hasn't heard the sales director broadcasting confidential details about their clients with an entire train compartment? Or experienced fellow concert-goers viewing an entire performance through a 6-inch screen while blocking your view, it feels like our societal behaviours have undergone a profound shift.

I can't help feeling that the collective cacophony of ringtones, video sounds, and general mindless behaviour around our smartphones is becoming a significant source of sensory stress. The irony of this also amplifying feelings of social disconnection does not escape me, let alone the questions I have about the boundaries of personal space in the digital age.

The Sleep Paradox

Sleep, the age-old restorative process that every living being relies upon, now finds itself at odds with the very tool many of us set beside our pillows each night. Smartphones, designed to engage, inform, and occasionally enamour, often intrude into the sacred sanctuary of rest. Many many times, I find myself discussing the discomfort of being separated from one's phone at night - they have become a digital comfort blanket, and it's too stressful to put it away.

Yes, these devices offer conveniences from alarm clocks to meditation tracks to paying your bills at the click of a button; their omnipresence in our nighttime routines may be robbing us of restful sleep. The allure of just one more scroll, the beckoning blue light, or the sudden ping of a late-night message are modern challenges to achieving consistent, quality sleep. Waking up at 3 a.m., the temptation to keep scrolling is just too much and before you know it, bleary-eyed, it's time to get up.

Navigating the digital age

I cannot deny that the age of information, characterised by the rise of the smartphone, has ushered in profound benefits – instantaneous communication, access to vast troves of information, and platforms for self-expression. However, as with all monumental shifts in societal behaviour, there are growing pains. Many academics, psychologists, and sociologists have observed and commented on the intricate dance between humans and their smart devices. While we've embraced the positives, it's crucial to be aware of and navigate the potential pitfalls. The question isn't about rejecting technology but understanding its influence and drawing boundaries where necessary.

Technically there are a number of key issues to consider.

Blue Light Emission

Devices like smartphones, tablets, and computer screens primarily emit blue light, a high-energy, short-wavelength light. While this type of light can be beneficial during daylight hours by increasing attention and mood, it can be particularly disruptive at night. The human body produces melatonin, often dubbed the 'sleep hormone', which regulates our sleep-wake cycle. However, excessive exposure to blue light in the evenings can suppress melatonin production. This suppression can delay the onset of REM sleep, reduce the duration of REM sleep, and consequently lead to poorer quality sleep and even sleep deprivation. In essence, your devices might be tricking your internal clocks into believing it's still daytime, disrupting our natural circadian rhythms and the restorative benefits they bring.

Digital Stimulation

The very design of many apps and platforms encourages continual engagement. Whether it's scrolling through ever-refreshing news feeds, playing visually intense games, or engaging with multimedia content, these digital experiences are designed to capture and retain our attention. This kind of stimulation activates the brain, making it alert and awake. Engaging with such content, especially before bedtime, can heighten our mental alertness, making the transition to a calm, rest-ready state much more challenging. Essentially, while your body might be ready for rest, your mind remains in a state of heightened activity.

Doom Scrolling

A recent phenomenon, 'doom scrolling', refers to the act of consuming a large quantity of negative or distressing news in a continuous scroll, often on social media platforms or news apps. This habitual scrolling, especially during uncertain times, can lead to feelings of despair, anxiety, and hopelessness. It becomes a cycle where individuals are seeking updates or news but continually encounter negative content, further amplifying any feelings of unease or distress.

Constant Interruptions

For those old enough to remember the flashing red light of the often nick-named crackberry (blackberry), it is well understood how constant notifications trigger a burst of adrenalin. Today, that flashing red light seems tame! Now you have to contend with a blitz of attention-seeking alerts. From social media updates to news alerts and email notifications to app updates, our devices buzz, beep, and light up constantly. Even if you choose to ignore a late-night notification, the mere sound or vibration can disrupt the process of falling asleep or jar someone out of deep slumber. For some, it creates a state of anticipation, where the mind is subconsciously waiting for the next ping or vibration, preventing a peaceful, undisturbed night's rest.

Mental Stress

In an interconnected world, our devices often serve as a window to global events, personal dramas, and everything in between. While this can be enlightening and connective, it can also be a source of mental and emotional stress. Reading distressing news or engaging in intense social interactions can evoke strong emotional responses. These feelings don't simply vanish when we set our devices aside; they linger, often manifesting as rumination or worry. As a result, the mind remains active and alert, processing and pondering these digital interactions and events, making it challenging to achieve the mental calmness required for restful sleep.

Fortunately, there are ways to mitigate these effects. Screen-free time before bed, utilising "night mode" features, and setting devices to "Do Not Disturb" can all contribute to better sleep hygiene.

What else can you do to support yourself?

  1. Screen-Free Time Before Bed: It's recommended to have at least 30 minutes to an hour of screen-free time before going to bed. This allows the brain to wind down and prepares the body for rest.

  2. Night Mode Features: Many devices now have "night mode" or "blue light filter" features that reduce blue light emission in the evenings. While these modes can be helpful, they don't fully eliminate the sleep-disrupting effects of screens.

  3. Keep Devices Outside the Bedroom: Creating a sleep-conducive environment often means removing screens from the bedroom entirely. This reduces the temptation to check the device if one wakes up during the night.

  4. Limit Stimulating Content: If you must use a device before sleep, try to engage with calming content, like reading a book or listening to soothing music, rather than stimulating activities like gaming or social media.

  5. Set Do Not Disturb Modes: Many phones have a "Do Not Disturb" mode that can mute notifications during set hours, ensuring they don’t disrupt sleep.

  6. Practice digital mindfulness: Be intentional about when and how you use your devices.

  7. Set boundaries: Allocate specific times for device usage and stick to them, especially during social events and before bedtime.

In conclusion, while smartphones and digital technology have woven themselves into the fabric of our daily lives, we have the agency to determine the depth of their influence. Through understanding, mindfulness, and boundary-setting, we can let go of smartphones as comfort blankets and ensure that these tools enhance our lives rather than dominate them.

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