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Is your Smartphone a Sleep Thief?

September 13, 2017

By Elizabeth Bechard, BA, RYT

There are times in life when you discover things about yourself that you’d rather other people not know about you: the week I used an app to track my smartphone use for the first time, I discovered one of these things. I envisioned myself as a mindful, moderate user of my iPhone, but the data that assessed my daily screen-time painted quite a different picture. I probably don’t know you well enough to reveal how much time I spent on my phone that week, but I can tell you that seeing the truth about my screen-time was a powerful motivator for change.

Smartphones make our lives easier in many ways, and they’ve become far more than phones. In a recent conversation with a friend, I found myself describing all of the functions my iPhone plays in my life: alarm clock, camera, GPS, social media connection point, portable internet; its function as a phone was the 6th thing that came to mind. The fact that we turn to our smartphones for so many purposes may be largely responsible for the increasing amount of screen-time we’re logging each day. One 2016 study published in PLOS One estimated average screen time use for adults at 38.4 hours over a 30-day window, with younger age being associated with longer screen-time (Christensen et al, 2016).

This same study revealed that longer average screen-time use during bedtime and sleeping periods were associated with decreased sleep quality and efficiency, and a longer “sleep onset latency” (that’s a fancy way of describing how long it takes you to fall asleep). A 2015 study on smartphone use in 319 university students showed that higher smartphone use was associated with higher depression, anxiety, and daytime dysfunction levels and lower sleep quality; Smartphone Addiction Scale scores were significantly higher in women than men (DeMirci et al, 2015). And a clinical trial of Massachusetts fourth and seventh graders published in Pediatrics found that children who slept near a small screen and who had more screen time “were more likely to have perceived insufficient rest or sleep in the past week” (Falbe et al, 2015).

In a nutshell, research is telling us that the more time we spend looking at our smartphone screens, the more negative side effects we’re likely to experience. It’s theorized that smartphones and tablets disrupt sleep, at least in part, because they emit what’s known as “blue light.” This light is picked up by special cells behind our eyeballs, and communicates to the brain that it’s morning and time to wake up. Blue light is known to suppress melatonin, a hormone that plays an important role in regulating sleep timing and circadian rhythm. Looking at our smartphones throughout the day can also make it much harder to wind down our thoughts when it’s time to go to bed: most of us can relate to the feeling of wishing we hadn’t seen that one last irritating post on Facebook just before trying to fall asleep.

If you’re convinced, as I was, that it might be time to take steps to address your smartphone use, an integrative approach to behavior change may be helpful. As an integrative health coach, I’m not immune to less-than-wholesome habits, but I do have a few tricks up my sleeve for learning to shift them. Here’s a glimpse at the process I’ve been working through to reduce my own smartphone use – how might this process work for you?

  • Consider what your life would be like with less screen-time: what would be possible for your relationships? Your sleep? Your mental and emotional health?
  • Consider your values when it comes to how you relate to technology. Do you value being more present with your children? Do you value being able to use your smartphone to FaceTime with your friends across the country? Identify some of the pros and cons of smartphone use, and identify what’s most important to you.
  • Try using an app (such as Moment) to get a baseline assessment of how much screen-time you’re currently logging: it’s hard to make a behavior change without knowing where you’re starting from.
  • Consider how ready you are to make changes in your smartphone habits. How important is it to shift this behavior right now? How confident are you that you can be successful? If your confidence is low, what could help boost it?
  • Set a SMART goal for reducing your screen-time: SMART goals are specific, measurable, action-oriented, realistic, and time-bound. For example, you might aim to spend 2 hours less per week on your smartphone within a month’s time.
  • Set yourself up for success by taking any steps needed to prepare for putting this change into motion: do you need to buy an alarm clock so that you can sleep with your phone in another room? Let your friends know that you won’t be texting as much? Uninstall tempting and/or crazy-making apps?
  • Give change a try, and learn as much as you can from both your successes and failures as if it’s all an experiment. Incorporate generous doses of self-compassion as needed (e.g. don’t beat yourself up too much if you find yourself racking up Instagram hours during a particularly stressful week – see if you can view it as an opportunity to adjust your plan).

I’m happy to report that my average screen-time use has decreased by about 4 hours a week over the last month – and I haven’t missed the extra time at all.

Are you interested in learning more about Integrative Health Coaching?

The early registration deadline for Duke Integrative Medicine’s October IHCPT Foundation and Certification courses is coming up on 9/22. You’ll receive training on how to help others through the behavior change process, and as a bonus, these tools just might come in handy in your own life, as well.


  1. Demirci K, Akgonul M, Akpinar A (2015). Relationship of smartphone use severity with sleep quality, depression, and anxiety in university students. J Behav Addict, 4(2), 85-92.
  2. Khazan O. (February 24, 2015). How smartphones hurt sleep. The Atlantic. Accessed 8/14/17.
  3. Hamblin, J. (December 22, 2014). No phones in bed. The Atlantic. Accessed 8/14/17.
  4. Christensen M, Bettencourt L, Kaye L, et al. (2016). Direct measurements of smartphone screen-time: relationships with demographics and sleep. PLoS One, 11(11),
  5. Falbe J, Davison K, Franckle R, et al. (2015). Sleep duration, restfulness, and screens in the sleep environment. Pediatrics,135(2), e367-75.


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