There are enough studies out there that tell it to us straight: we’re addicted to our phones. From ruining our relationships to demolishing our attention spans, our obsession spells nothing but trouble. But now, it turns out, also we need to worry about the blue light emitted from our phone screens.
Of all the light waves emitted by the sun that can be detected by our eyes, the blue ones are shorter, get reflected and bounced around most by the molecules in the Earth’s atmosphere – it’s the reason why the sky is blue. But despite this, blue light is considered dangerous for us. Research featured in The Lancet Psychiatry looked at data from 91,105 middle-aged people and found that those with disrupted sleep patterns had “very poor sleep hygiene” due to being “on their mobile phones at midnight, checking Facebook”. These people were also found to be at a higher risk of depression or bipolar.
Researchers in Australia have also advised that “physical boundaries” need to be set over teenagers’ use of phones, warning that their late-night use is ruining their sleep pattern and thus potentially harming their mental health. A study of 1,101 Australian high school students aged between 13 and 16 found poor sleep due to late-night texting or calling was linked to a decline in mental health, such as depression, lack of self-esteem and their ability to cope with situations.
In March 2018, Chief Medical Officer for England, Sally Davies, advised against using devices, such as phones and laptops, that emit a blue light whilst scientists determine whether they’re harmful to our wellbeing or not. More research is still needed, but one study conducted just a month later at the Barcelona Institute of Global Health linked an increased risk of breast and prostate cancers with blue light exposure at night.
It seems the majority of health problems occur when people use their phones in the dark at nighttime. Charles Czeisler, Director of Sleep Medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston warned that peering at brightly lit screens at night disrupts the body’s natural rhythms and raises the risk of health problems including depression, obesity and ever heart disease. It comes as more portable devices, as well as cheaper electricity and WIFI, allows users to surf the web, check social media and read books at anytime, anywhere.
Czeisler explained that artificial light can prevent a good night’s sleep by reducing the number of neurons that are needed to bring on sleep, activating those for wakefulness instead, along with suppressing melatonin (known as the sleep hormone). This alters the body’s natural clock. "Technology has effectively decoupled us from the natural 24-hour day to which our bodies evolved, driving us to bed later,” Czeisler said. “And we use caffeine in the morning to rise as early as we ever did, putting the squeeze on sleep."
And not only is blue light affecting your sleep, it could also be taking its toll on your skin. ‘Screen face’ is the new skincare woe to worry about (add it to the list with ‘phone elbow’ and ‘text neck’). It’s once again down to the blue light – or HEV, as its known amongst experts – which some beauty professionals say could be as ageing as sun damage. In fact, the beauty industry has embraced an ‘anti-blue-light’ ethos, with many treatments claiming to protect skin for the light from phones and laptops.
“There’s a lot of research being done at the moment into the effects of visible light. I recently got back from the American Academy of Dermatology meeting and one of the things that was being discussed there was whether visible light such as HEV or infra-red ought to be protected against in sunscreens.” Andrew Birnie, a dermatologist and skin-cancer specialist at the William Harvey and Kent and Canterbury Hospitals, told the Guardian, although he said there’s no evidence of the blue light causing skin cancer.
So, how to remedy this? Advice from experts is the same: restrict your use of your phone, particularly at night. Professor Smith recommends distancing yourself from electronic devices an hour before bedtime, whether that means leaving them in a different room or turning them off entirely. Lynette Vernon, lead researcher of the study into Australian teens, also advised that people who use their phones as alarm clocks should replace them with actual clocks in order to keep boundaries.
If you still can’t seem to part with your phone, there are even mobile phone rehabs to help you break the cycle – reStart, an electronic addiction recovery centre in Richmond, America has a specialised treatment programme for mobile fixation. Or, on the less extreme side of things, free tools like F.lux and Redshift, along with iPhone’s ‘Night Shift’ mode can reduce blue light emissions by adding a warm glow to your laptop and smartphone screen.
But we think John O’Hagan of Public Health England’s centre for radiation, chemical and environmental hazards, sums it up best. “It’s important for people to stop and do nothing for a while,” he said. “If you want a good sleep, you need to prepare for sleep.”