Late-night fiddling with devices stimulates your brain and invades what should be a quiet space. Time to turn off
‘The ill effects of poor sleep on relationships is well documented.’ Photograph: Justin Pumfrey/Getty Images
Two films I watched at the London Film Festival this month jarred with me in an unexpected way. Drinking Buddies and Afternoon Delight are what might be called mumblecore movies – all improvised dialogue and plots that home in on relatively minor events in the emotional lives of their protagonists. I’ll spare you my reviews, but an incidental aspect of these self-consciously naturalistic portrayals of contemporary urban life depressed me. Namely, the proliferation of gadgetry in the bedroom, by which I do not mean sex toys.
In a scene from Drinking Buddies, for example, one half of a couple sits in bed one evening, catching up with her emails on a MacBook, while her boyfriend conducts a text conversation on his smartphone, thus rudely inviting interlopers into their intimate space. Technology similarly seeps into the bedroom in Afternoon Delight, with post-coital stressy business texting rendered as quotidian as brushing your teeth.
There is nothing unusual about this set-up these days – it’s just that these films held a mirror up to a facet of my life that I already didn’t really approve of, and projected it on to a giant screen. My bedside table usually has a phone and an iPad lying on it, as well as paper books; sometimes there’s even a laptop too, although I do try to put that out for the night with the cat, the tiny pulsating “sleep mode” light is just too obviously anathema to actual human sleep.
Is nowhere sacred? Must the ability to text, tweet or post images be at our fingertips while we’re sleeping? The fact that our books, films and alarm clocks often live in the same devices as our various inboxes and social network apps lazily justifies our need to take them to bed with us, but I am not alone in checking my emails, or catching up with current affairs last thing before lights out. I know this is not conducive to proper, satisfying sleep but I do it anyway, and wake up with a headache.
I’m just as bad when I wake up. The first thing I do in the morning is pick up my phone to check the time. Then I compulsively unlock it to “check the weather”. But as soon as my eyes fix on the screen, my attention scatters a thousand different ways, taking me down all sorts of rabbit holes until I finally set it back down, with a twitchy brain and still no idea whether it’s going to rain because it’s the one thing I forgot to check.
Another justification for taking these devices to bed is that there simply isn’t enough time to keep up with the continuous tidal wave of computer-related chores and correspondences, and therefore any quiet moment is fair game for a quick holiday-planning/sock-buying/online-banking session. I wouldn’t be surprised to find that, if the Top five regrets of the dying article (which serially returns to the most-read list on this website) were to be updated in 2033, an item about never allowing yourself a break from screen-based life to daydream or properly rest, even when ill in bed, makes an appearance.
The actor, Daniel Craig, recently credited banning technology from the bedroom as key to his keeping his marriage to Rachel Weisz a happy one. I see his point. Aside from all of this gadgetry allowing friends, colleagues and chores to gatecrash the marital bed, the ill-effects of poor sleep on relationships is well documented. One study, which chimed with me, demonstrating the positive effects of gratitude on overall wellbeing, found that poor sleepers were more selfish and less likely to feel gratitude.
Poor sleep, of course, has countless other negative effects on health, happiness and productivity. And insomnia may predict Alzheimer’s. It is not uncommon for people to tweet or update their Facebook status in the middle of the night when they have insomnia. Aside from the brain-scrambling stimulation of the internet, there is evidence that staring at backlit screens keeps brains more alert and suppresses melatonin levels (although the jury’s out on whether it scrambles melatonin production enough to disrupt sleep .)
I read this fact in an article reporting that Arianna Huffington, the doyenne of digital publishing herself, has banned phones and computers from her bedroom in the name of a good night’s sleep. This reminded me of how I felt when I read that many senior staff at Silicon Valley behemoths including Apple, eBay and Yahoo send their kids to schools based on the Steiner approach, that ban screens from their classrooms and frown upon their use at home: suckered. Could it be that these guys know better than to get high on their own supply?