I am going to start a small series on technology and health. It is something that has peaked my interest for several months now and I am going to share my thoughts and research here. I started thinking about this when my eyes began to burn and throb and I lost feeling in 3 of my fingers on my left hand. I went to the optometrist who said my glasses were good but that my eyes were really strained and coupled with my allergies was causing the discomfort in my eyes. As far as my hand goes I’ve not been to the doctor yet but I suspect it is carpel tunnel or something similar.
As an IT professional technology is a major part of my life and I can see the many good things it has brought us but I can also see the bad things as well. In this series I am going to show what I have learned and give some advice on how to counteract those negative effects. Admittedly these posts will focus more on the negative side of technology, mainly because the positive is obvious to us all. Please don’t take these posts as a negative rant or manifesto against technology only as an awareness of the dangers and ways to mitigate those dangers while improving our lives for the better. I am definitely no anti-technology luddite…without computers I wouldn’t have a job.
No one, especially parents of young children, can deny that sleep is vital to a healthy life and most of those I know say they don’t get enough of it (including myself). We all know that consuming caffeine or sugary food and drink late at night can cause us to not sleep well. More and more research is showing that our use of technology is affecting our sleep as well.
When the sun goes down and it gets time for our bodies to sleep the brain releases a chemical called melatonin. Melatonin is a hormone that decreases our alertness and signals us that bedtime is near. The pineal gland releases this hormone a few hours before bedtime and begins the process of our body preparing for regenerative sleep. This hormone helps regulate our circadian rhythm that dominates our sleep/awake pattern.
This rhythm is vital to us getting the correct amount of sleep and our bodies be regenerated and us be alert during the day. With the proliferation of the use of modern technology this cycle has become compromised. According to one study the average U.S. adult spends an average of 11 hours a day with digital media*. All of these devices (TV’s, computers, tablets, smartphones, e-readers, etc.) emit light…more specifically blue light. This blue light is tricking our bodies into thinking it is daytime.
Many studies have been done that show that blue light is inhibiting out brains from releasing the melatonin that we need to begin the sleep process. This leaves us to stay awake later and sleep less. This has helped attribute to the statistic that 30% if employed US adults reporting that they get less than 6 hours of sleep a night**. This coupled with our fast paced modern society of early work times and long days has caused sever detriments to our health.
This blue light affects adults negatively but the affect is multiplied exponentially with children and teenagers. It is during these years that we establish our circadian rhythm and during these years we are more sensitive to blue light interruption. In one study I read the melatonin levels were measured in adults and teenagers during the use of blue light emitting electronics. The study found that even when teens were exposed to a level of blue light 1/10th less than the adults in the study they actually suppressed more melatonin than the adults in the study***.
Sleep deprivation affects us negatively in more ways than just being tired during the day. The decreased alertness causes us be less productive and increases our chances of mistakes and injury. I know personally when I am tired I make poorer food choices and eat out more because I am too tired to cook. This negatively affects my health and my finances. It is during sleep that our bodies regenerate and heal. Sleep deprivation has been linked to increased risk of breast cancer, colorectal cancer, and prostate cancer****.
The blue light also affects our eyes. This may seem like a duh statement but the effects are serious on our eyes, especially for kids and teens. Cases of digital eyes strain, or Computer Vision Syndrome as it is professionally referred to, is on the rise. Symptoms include the short term effects of burning eyes and headaches but there are long lasting affects as well. Blue light is a high frequency light and it can cause cells in the eyes to die off at a faster rate causing macular degeneration*****. These affects are worst for kids and teens because the pigment that the eye uses to filter the blue light doesn’t develop in the human eye until about age 25*****.
So now the real question is what can we do to help combat these negative effects. Technology is all around us and it is very useful to our lives. Technology and blue light is inescapable nor do I believe we should escape totally but everything in moderation. The ideal would to begin by discontinuing use of TV’s, computers, smartphones, etc. as soon as possible to the setting of the sun. That would be the ideal but of course there are those of us who can’t. I would personally be one of those people and what I do may help you.
First thing I do is to stop using technology as soon as possible in the evenings. Some nights that is 6 o’clock some nights it is 11 o’clock depending on the circumstances. Ideally it would be at least 3-4 hours before my bedtime to allow my brain to send those melatonin inspired commands to prepare for sleep. When I can’t do that I try to stick to using my smartphone where I have a blue light filter program that filters out a great deal of the blue spectrum light. I also use a filter on my work computer to help alleviate the eye strain called f.lux.
This program coupled with the change in habits has helped me. My headaches are fewer and my eyes burn less plus I do sleep better. The change was anything but instant or overnight. It takes weeks to reset that circadian rhythm clock. A bonus has been that I have been able to wind down in the evenings and have a calmer end to the day with less stress. I was personally surprised at the stress looking at the news, Facebook, etc caused. I encourage you to read for yourself and discover yourself what researchers are discovering.