Most experts agree that staring at screens near bedtime is bad news for good sleep.
Digital screens emit blue light, which encourages wakefulness – not great for winding down.
Until recently, my only blue light considerations were limited to avoiding S.A.D. by blasting myself with a daylight lamp at every opportunity. Now, apparently, I’m meant to be avoiding the stuff after a certain hour. It’s endless.
Anyway, I try to limit screen use before bed… but I don’t try very hard. I often write and edit well into the evening. When I down tools for the night, I’m probably going to turn on Netflix or start browsing Reddit.
Most of my life is digital, for better or worse. I know most of my readers can say the same.
A few weeks ago, quite by accident, I came across a (partial) solution.
It had been raining for far too long. Whilst staring out the window at the dour English skies, I thought back to an old boyfriend, who often lamented the loss of an old pair of sunglasses.
The lenses were orange glass – not polarised, orange all the way through – and they gave the world a sunny glow which lifted his mood. Rose-tinted glasses had nothing on these bad boys, he maintained. He couldn’t find anything similar to replace them, and I wasn’t able to help.
However, this was almost ten years ago – the internet hadn’t fully opened the gaping door of instant gratification that we enjoy in 2019. Perhaps I could finally experience these miracles of optometry.
I opened Amazon and immediately found dozens of pairs of orange glasses.
As it happens, they’ve soared in popularity; not because they soothe the minds of nihilistic chefs, but because they block out blue lights from the screens we’re all glommed onto.
Disappointments of the English weather forgotten, I turned my attention to this shiny new idea. There were lots of choices for blue light blocking glasses – some more legit-sounding than others (I’m not sure if my chakras need realigning through light therapy, but I’d like to keep the issues separate).
The next day (I love the internet), my glasses arrived. I’d picked reasonably well; they’re big enough to fit over my prescription glasses in a pinch and, worn over contact lenses, they could almost be a deliberate aesthetic choice.
It also turns out that these amber-coloured lenses aren’t the only option – there seem to be plenty of blue-light blockers with clear lenses.
Before I tried to measure how much good my new glasses were doing, I decided I’d better find out what I was trying to fix, exactly.
How harmful is blue light?
Probably not as harmful as you’ve heard.
Blue light is commonly blamed for various screen-related maladies, such as eye strain. Eye strain is common amongst heavy screen users – symptoms include dry, tired eyes which occasionally become sore or even blurred.
The perceived connection between eye strain and blue light is definitely good for marketing blue light blocking glasses – Instagram influencers love the kitschy frames and #selfcare feel – but it doesn’t seem to be rooted in reality.
As scientists point out, the outside world is flooded with blue light during daylight hours. If it’s doing us physical harm, we’re better off staying indoors on the computer than we are venturing out for a walk.
Eye strain is caused by focusing on one thing for too long. If you spent all day staring at a bowl of fruit you’d probably have the same symptoms; and significantly less fun.
However, blue light probably is a bum note in your circadian rhythm. Letting too much of it in when you’re meant to be winding down might harm your sleep patterns.
The human body is wired to respond to blue light, which it historically consumed as “daylight”.
LED lighting is fantastic in many ways, but its cheap, bright illumination might be keeping us from sleeping well.
If you look at an undimmed LED screen before bed, you’re feeding your brain inaccurate information on the time of day. It therefore holds out on melatonin, which it would otherwise be using to make you sleepy.
This is an issue for those of us who look at screens before bed. It’s also a problem for people who work evening and night shifts – their sleep patterns, already interfered with, can be further skewed by untimely exposure to blue light.
What are the solutions to blue light issues?
There are several ways to reduce the harm blue light has on your sleep.
The first, of course, is to stop looking at screens in the hours before bed. The various articles I’ve read suggest switching off between two and four hours before bedtime.
The next solution, which I already follow to an extent, is to deploy blue light dimmers on the screens themselves. Desktop app f.lux is popular for computer users. OSX and iOS have Night Shift, Windows users can use Night Light, and Android has Night Mode.
Then there are the glasses. I’ve been using them for a week – putting them on at about 21:00, which is three hours before I amble upstairs. I keep them on until I switch the bedside light off, as apparently even dim bulbs are too bright for our delicate little eyeballs.
Do the glasses work?
Yeah, I think so.
I got used to the colour change quickly, as it’s similar to the effect caused by devices’ blue light filters. That said, if you’ve got both precautions ‘activated’, you might have to forsake one or the other when you’re working on anything involving graphics. On-screen hues are massively off; even real-world shades of blue are nearly black.
I need glasses most of the time anyway, so the feeling of wearing them indoors isn’t as odd as it might be for those of you with 20/20 vision. These frames are particularly large, as I needed lenses big enough to fit over my already-owlish glasses. I daresay you could find yourself something more delicate if you don’t fancy balancing side plates on your face.
On the other hand, I do keep forgetting to put them on; and it’s not ideal to introduce another easily-misplaced item into my daily routine. Still, I expect both issues will improve as I get used to the glasses.
So, the medicine is bearable; but does it soothe the symptoms?
I do feel less “buzzed” when I finally finish work for the evening.
Generally, I find it hard to tear myself away from my laptop if I’ve let myself write past 22:00. I get a second wind, which is great for tight deadlines but not fantastic for sticking to a normal schedule. This week, it’s been significantly easier to close the lid and leave that last email until morning.
It’s also taking me less time to drop off – down to around 20 minutes from around 40. Still not great, in my opinion. Back when I did physical work, I would fall asleep within five minutes of curling up. But perhaps I can’t expect that level of snoozy ease without the corresponding muscle ache.
I’ll continue wearing the blue light blocking glasses, as they’ve made enough of a positive difference to counteract the inconvenience.
Next up in “things I don’t want to do but definitely should”: giving up caffeine after noon. Huh.
- The glasses I bought
- Blue light has a dark side – Harvard Medical School
- The truth about blue light: does it really cause insomnia and increased risk of cancer? – the Guardian