We probably already all know that we use our phones too much, but is this a minor inconvenience or a more serious public health issue in the making?
Perhaps one of the strongest examples of our smartphone addictions is how we remain glued to our screens right until the very moment we turn off the lights to sleep at night.
A large body of research is now uncovering how bad nighttime phone usage really is.
Here, we’ll be digging through some stats and evidence on the topic of sleeping near your phone and suggesting some ways you can reduce your risks and exposure to harmful effects.
Table of Contents
For many of us, our phones are one of the first things we interact with in the morning and the last thing we interact with at night.
It’s only in the last 10 to 15 years that this has become normal. Unless you had a serious addiction to Snake, the Nokia 3310s and Siemens A50s of days gone by likely wouldn’t keep us up at night as our modern smartphones do.
To put that into perspective, the first homo sapiens – the species of humans that we are today – first walked the earth some 400,000 years ago.
We’ve only been using smartphones in this way for 1/40,000th of our evolution. You’d have to say that this is very new to us as a species, and thus, it’s pretty hard to predict what effects it could have.
This is why the health effects of mobile phones are such a compelling topic – it’s just so new.
It can take a while for humans to suss out the risks associated with ‘new things’. For example, in Victorian times, we didn’t know that X-rays were radioactive.
People were x-rayed for fun at funfairs and parties. This lead to many people contracting aggressive forms of cancer.
Fast forward to today; is it possible that mobile phones represent a similar (though less destructive) timebomb?
Let’s look at some smartphone usage stats, namely stats on how often we use our smartphones at night or before bed:
- According to YouGov, 65% of Brits use their phones at night before going to bed. As many as 45% check them when they wake up in the middle of the night.
- A poll discussed by the BBC found that some 45% of 11 – 18-year-olds check their phones at night when they should be going to sleep. One in ten admitted that they could check their phones as many as 10 times.
- Childwise found that children as young as 7 now slept with their phones by their bed. Over half of all children slept with their phones by their bed.
- It’s a similar story in the US where some 66% of Americans admit sleeping with their phones directly beside them at night.
- Pew Research found that 90% of 18 – 29-year-olds in the US slept near to their phone.
- Another poll discussed by Fortune suggested the figure as 71% amongst all adults. 3% of respondents said that they slept with their phone actually in their hand.
- These stats are replicated in surveys and polls across the Nordics, France and Latin America at least. There are strong grounds to suggest that these stats are replicated across most smartphone users.
The stats here are unanimous, universal and undeniable. It’s glaringly obvious that many of us use our phones before bed and even sleep with them, or at least sleep near them all night long.
After all, our pre-sleep time is quiet and seemingly free from distractions – perfect for some social media or web browsing.
And then, there are practical reasons why we go to our phone at night, to set our alarm clocks, check our schedule and calendars, for example.
Mostly, though, our excuses or reasoning for checking our phones at night are pretty flimsy.
Even if we’re genuinely engaged in something we’re reading on our phone before we go to bed, we’ll pay for it in terms of sleep quality. Setting alarms and flicking through emails and calendars, are these really things you need to do immediately before bed?!
Let’s move on and look at how and why nighttime mobile phone usage is bad for us.
The health problems of sleeping with your phone can be broken down into 4 key areas:
- Mental stimulation before bed
- Blue light exposure
- Exposure to electromagnetic frequencies
- Electrical failure and fire risk
Sleep might not seem like a big deal to some, but it’s as important to our health as water or food. Poor quality sleep or sleep deprivation can increase our risks of many diseases and health conditions ranging from heart disease to cancer and mental health problems.
Poor quality sleep also weakens our immune systems, leaving us more susceptible to infections.
The sleep quality of the average human today is already on a rapid decline.
Excessive mobile phone usage before bed can easily push our risk factors for sleep-related disease into the red.
We have strong psychological associations with our phones. They help us stay connected with others, engage with content online, play games and organise our lives.
These psychological associations make our phones psychologically and mentally stimulating. They provide our brains with information – this is the last thing we need before we sleep.
This might seem to contradict our habits to read a book before we sleep, which many people believe is good for our quality of sleep. It is true that the benefits of reading before sleep are often exaggerated, but studies also show that books help relax us, which helps us sleep.
However, this doesn’t work for everyone – Joyce Walsleben, PhD says that when reading becomes too gripping, stimulating or entertaining, it might do more harm than good.
The same principles apply to phones, but phones are a much more aggressive form of media compared to books.
Phones involve a lot of quick, repetitive stimulation – much different from the rhythmic turn of the pages of the book. Scrolling, clicking, liking, commenting; these are all highly stimulative actions that switch our brain on, not off.
If our phones buzz or ring in the night then this can cause fragmented sleep, disrupting REM and reducing our overall sleep quality. We might not even realise the effects of our phone ringing or vibrating, and may even think that our brains don’t register it at all, but this often isn’t the case.
If your phone vibrates or dings often throughout the night then it’s likely disrupting your natural sleep cycles.
Summary of key points:
- Phones stimulate the brain both physically and psychologically
- We don’t have the same associations with our phones as we do to books that may relax us before sleep
- Phones involve a lot of short, sharp actions like liking and scrolling. This engages the brain and wakes us up before bed
- Phones that vibrate or ring during the night can disrupt or fragment our sleep, even if we don’t consciously realise
One of the most widely explored areas of technology addiction and overuse is increased exposure to blue light.
Blue, the colour, is often associated with rest and relaxation. Red is more symbolically linked to excitement and stimulation.
In scientific terms, the opposite is correct. Blue light has a higher wavelength, it’s more stimulating to the brain.
Blue light sits furthest up the visible light spectrum, close to ultraviolet light which is present in sunlight. UV light in sunlight has the most potent burning effect on the skin and can also cause skin cancers.
Digital screens emit lots of blue light – phone screens are some of the worst culprits.
The impacts of blue light exposure late at night revolve around our circadian rhythm.
Our circadian rhythms are a sort of biological clock that keeps us in sync with the 24-hour sleep-wake cycle. We’ve evolved with the Sun and Moon – night and day – for over 300,000 years or so, longer if you count our evolution as Great Apes.
It’s hardwired into our brains; humans are thoroughly diurnal, meaning the opposite of nocturnal.
Since blue light replicates sunlight, it also stimulates our brains in a similar way to sunlight. Mobile phone usage essentially tricks our brains into reacting to sunlight.
Consequently, blue light has been found to reduce melatonin, an important sleep-regulating hormone. This affects our ability to fall asleep and decreases our sleep quality.
Those exposed to blue light before bed are found to suffer from an increased risk of insomnia as well as poorer quality sleep and tiredness the next day.
Dr Oz from the Cleveland Clinic says; “there’s evidence that cellphone abuse is associated with sleep disturbances because their blue light restricts the production of melatonin, which regulates your body’s internal clock.”
The mental stimulation of mobile phone interactions combined with blue light exposure makes for a toxic duo.
Summary of key points:
- Blue light sits furthest up the visible light spectrum and is closest to UV sunlight
- Blue light disrupts our circadian rhythm, making it harder to obtain good quality sleep
- By suppressing melatonin, blue light physically impairs our sleep quality
- Even short doses of blue light can have a drastic effect on our neurochemistry
We’ve looked at sleep quality, but what about the other health impacts of sleeping next to your phone?
Phones do not sleep when we sleep (unless you do switch them off). They stay awake and remain connected to wireless networks and services. They probably perform updates during their idle state too, increasing the amount of data they’re sending and receiving.
Resultantly, phones continue to pump our electromagnetic radiation when you’re asleep. All electronic devices emit some level of electromagnetic frequencies or radiation.
These types of radiation are non-ionising, meaning they’re not as destructive to biological cells as X-rays, gamma rays, etc. However, this does not mean that they have no health consequences at all.
If you’re sleeping close to your phone then you’re exposing yourself to that radiation. Mobile phone radiation travels some 30 to 40 cm at least, so if your phone is on the bedside table, then there’s a good chance that you’re absorbing some of its radiation.
This is especially true if you sleep with your phone in your actual or bed, or worst of all, under your pillow.
The idea of our phones pumping out harmful radiation might seem farfetched.
Potential health impacts of EMF was fringe science some decades ago, but research has clarified that EMF emitted by phones poses a real risk. Even the WHO now classifies cellular radiation as ‘possibly carcinogenic’.
Two studies recently reviewed in ScienceMag linked electromagnetic exposure to skyrocketing rates in neurological and brain diseases.
The authors suggest that phone radiation exposure, amongst other modern risk factors, are leading more people to suffer from potentially devastating neurological conditions earlier in life.
Experts and scientists have widely warned against sleeping with your phone under your pillow as this is when radiation exposure is at its highest.
Sleeping with your phone under your pillow is a terrible idea so if you do that then stop immediately.
Summary of key points:
- Mobile phones produce some level of radiation so long as they are switched on
- EMF radiation emitted by phones is officially classified as ‘possibly carcinogenic’
- There are many reliable studies linking mobile phones to cancer, infertility and other neurological diseases
- The risks are worse the closer you are to your phone, but even 30cm to 40cm distance from your phone can result in exposure
Fire risk is another potent but lesser-known reason for distancing from our phones at night.
You might think that modern phones are protected from accidental overheating, electronic failure and overheating, but this isn’t the case.
There has been a massive increase in fire incidents related to mobile phones, many of which have taken place at night.
There’s been some high-profile news coverage on exploding mobile phones:
- ABC News reported on this girl’s smartphone that caught fire at night, burning a hole in her mattress.
- International Business News reported on a 58-year-old woman’s phone that exploded beside her bed even though it wasn’t charging.
- A 14-year-old girl in Kazakhstan sadly died when her phone exploded beneath her pillow at night.
As phones become bigger and more powerful, these risks only intensify. As phones age, their batteries become less stable and more likely to overheat or even burst.
Add the increased heat of sleeping on your phone and you’ve got a potentially deadly combination.
Of course, the likelihood of your phone exploding is low, but the point remains that it does and can happen.
Summary of key points:
- Mobile phones have exploded or caught fire on or near the bed on several occasions
- Some of these events lead to injury or death
- There’s often no forewarning of when a phone battery becomes unstable
- Many brands and models have been reported to explode, overheat or catch fire
It’s difficult to say as all phones emit different levels of radiation.
Radiation emissions also depend on what your phone is doing. You might think your phone goes into sleep mode at night but it will likely still be scanning for a network, downloading updates and checking services at least as regularly as normal.
Moreover, if your phone is charging then your phone has no reason to self-limit its functionality, meaning its antennae will likely be operating at max voltage the entire time.
Mobile phone radiation can theoretically travel many feet whilst maintaining a high enough level to damage cells, but it’s undoubtedly stronger the closer the phone is to our bodies.
However, scientists have repeatedly pointed out that SAR tests (tests that measure mobile phone radiation absorption) are:
- Flawed in that they don’t reflect the duration of exposure
- Unable to reflect the true harm posed by mobile phone radiation
The regulatory limits for phone radiation are likely over-optimistically high as it is, with most recent evidence showing that SAR of a much lower level can still pose significant harm.
Some people have measured the radiation emitted by their phones at certain ranges, here are two opinions:
- WingAlpha suggests that 3ft is a ‘safe’ distance to keep your phone whilst you sleep.
- TechWellness suggest that any distance beyond 12 inches drastically reduces radiation exposure.
It’s worth highlighting that distancing your phone from you at night will only help with the radiation side of things, not blue light exposure or the psychological impacts of nighttime mobile phone usage.
And then, you’ve got to remember that you’re still exposed to mobile phone radiation throughout the day, which is more than enough to cause harm unless you invest in some form of protection.
The primary risks of nighttime mobile phone usage are all at their worst when your phone is directly next to you, or worst of all, under your pillow or otherwise inside your bed.
Your phone may heat up when it charges, which can increase the risk of an electrical fire.
Many mobile phone explosions are caused by charging phones. This is partly why power banks are disallowed from many aircraft.
Furthermore, your phone’s antennae will likely be on maximum power when your phone has an unlimited supply of energy. This might cause it to emit more radiation than usual.
In short, yes, it is bad to sleep with your phone charging right next to you.
Move it to a safer distance and use a battery bunker if you think your phone gets dangerously hot when charging.
So what are some strategies for reducing nighttime phone usage?
This is an obvious one.
The less you use your phone at night, the better. After dinner at around 7 pm, some 4 hours before bed, you should seriously consider limiting your mobile phone usage. The same goes for other screens.
A simple blanket reduction on all technology usage after dark is the most comprehensive way to reduce the harmful effects of nighttime mobile phone usage. It might seem drastic or extreme, but the rewards are plentiful.
“Only use your bedrooms for sleep and sex” – you might have already heard of this phrase, but it has real scientific grounding.
Bedrooms should be psychologically associated with sleep, not work or entertainment. Ideally, they should be totally devoid of electronics. That includes smartphones, TVs and computers.
Of course, this isn’t always possible; you might need your bedroom as a home office or similar.
If you can’t remove electronics then try and segregate and screen them off from your bed at least.
Keep your smartphone elsewhere outside the room and use a classic alarm clock instead.
Out of sight, out of mind!
Apps like Flux filter blue light from our screens and monitors, reducing their blue light emissions.
Many phones now ship with pre-installed blue filter apps. These can automatically filter out blue light as the night progresses, helping reduce exposure when it matters most – at night.
Blue light filters are very effective at combatting the neurochemical impacts of blue light, but they won’t help with the mental stimulation side of things. Still, they can go a long way in reducing the worst effects of excessive blue light exposure.
Getting used to a blue light filter can be tricky, you need to stick with it until it’s a habit and you stop realising it’s turned on.
Anti-radiation cases protect us from harmful phone radiation all day long, but they’re also excellent for shielding us from radiation throughout the night.
Your phone can still charge from inside an anti-radiation case too.
Using an anti-radiation case will only protect you from harmful phone radiation, not the neurochemical dangers of blue light or the psychological impacts of nighttime phone usage.
But still, given the evidence on mobile phone radiation exposure risks, anti-radiation phone cases should become the norm. They’re a potent first-line of defence against cellular radiation.
Mobile phones are addictive and harmful – that much has been established.
It’s a pretty toxic combination that we need to deal with as soon as we can. That means understanding the potential risks of mobile phone usage and taking practical steps to reduce them.
One key area where phones pose health risks is nighttime usage. The stats are alarming – vast swathes of the population spend significant time on their phone before bed.
This exposes us to blue light, stimulates our brains to prevent and worsen sleep and subjects us to harmful radiation. In some cases, phones have even caught fire or exploded on or next to the bed.
The moral of the story is to really consider how bad nighttime smartphone usage is. It’s not a joke, nor it is a minor inconvenience.