Is an obsession with technology causing us sleepless nights?

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New evidence suggests the use of laptops and phones leads to sleep deprivation. How has this happened and what’s the solution? Interviews by Rod McPhee and Neil Hudson.

‘We’ve become obsessed with the medium’

Dr John Elliott is a reader in intelligence engineering at Leeds Metropolitan University. He said: “It’s got to the point now where it is perceived to be essential to communicate in this way. It’s created its own need. We’ve become obsessed with the medium. Where, in the past, people would phone each other and have a conversation about something, now they email or text, which is such a less rich way of communicating.

“Why do we do that? Well, there’s a certain sense of safety about being once removed from the conversation. You are commenting on something, not directly speaking to someone, so it feels safer but then there’s this other sense that it is out of control in terms of the level of information which is now out there. Identity theft is a constant concern: could someone pretend to be me and open a bank account and so on – just about every piece of information is now obtainable somewhere.

“If you take it to the ultimate extreme, we’re all on the verge of being cyborgs, in that we’re all plugged into and part of the system. They are already implanting microchips in people and that has advantages for some disabled people, but what does it mean for the rest of us?

“There’s a kickback from people who are no longer in the flush of youth, some of whom shun this technology but in many ways, this is a one-way street and the youth of today are going to grow up with it. It’s going to become smaller and more integrated into all our lives, which has benefits but will it mean we lose our social skills?”

‘Technology is now so essential to us’

Barry Hirst is boss of Gadgets Fix, a technology store in Leeds city centre.

“The trouble is that now technology isn’t just something that people want, it’s something that they feel they need as well. Just 15 years ago people didn’t even want a mobile phone, now they just HAVE to have one. And our experience from the people who come into our shop is that we aren’t just obsessed with technology, we’re also obsessed with getting bigger and better technology all the time– we constantly want more and we constantly want to upgrade, It’s got to the stage now where it’s almost like an addiction.

“What makes this worse is the fact that our lives are so much more complex these days and technology helps with that, but it also makes things more complicated. In order to feel like we’re “in the loop” of what’s going on we feel like we need this technology just to be able to keep up. If we don’t keep up then we risk losing out, whether it’s business or socialising. I had one customer come in the other day who was actually relieved his laptop had broken down precisely because it gave him an excuse to step “out of the loop” and take a break.

‘We just don’t understand the importance of sleep’

Peter Hames, of Roundhay, Leeds, is a sleep expert who devised the Sleepio method of combatting insomnia.

“This is probably due to the emission of blue light from gadgets. Blue light is one of the triggers that wakes us up during the day because daylight is full of blue light. But our natural bodyclock is set so that when it gets dark we release the hormone melatonin, which sends us off to sleep.

“Any number of subtle things can upset this cycle, but blue light, in particular, is very distorting, particularly if we absorb it just before we go to sleep and that’s what many of us do.

“From a behavioural point of view it’s very worrying that we have so much technology in our lives, but it’s part of a wider issue over how important we view our sleep. Britain is a long way behind other countries like the US and Australia, where they know the health benefits of getting a good night’s rest. For them sleeping is as important as diet and exercise. But in this country sleep is something we squeeze in around other activities and technology offers us more activities. Except technology is now eating ever more into our sleeping time, and in ways which we’re only now starting to realise.”

‘We’re too conscious of technology all the time’

Dr Elliot Cohen leads the unique course, Psychology and Society, at Leeds Metropolitan University.

“I can totally believe the link between disturbed sleep and technology as there is evidence of the almost obsessive-compulsive nature of our use of technology, so much so that when we are detached from it, it makes us anxious. And that’s exacerbated by the presence of technology like smart phones - after all how many of us sleep with them on our bedside tables?

“If we aren’t using technology we’re conscious of not using it. In fact one of the questions that experts in sleep deprivation clinics ask is: ‘Where is your mobile phone when you go to sleep at night?’ and often the answer is that it’s right next to the bed. So, the only way to break the link is to make a conscious effort to move technology from the bedroom and remove it from our minds when we go to sleep.

“The trouble is we may be a little too late to nip it in the bud as more and more young people have technology ingrained in their lives, already your hear experts use the informal term: Nature Deficit Disorder which means that we, as humans, have removed ourselves entirely from natural behaviour – and technology has a lot to do with that.”

‘We have to decide when not to use it’

Hayden Cohen is a self-confessed ‘geek’ who teaches guitar at a primary school and English at Park Lane College and stars in his own alternative stage show, called Age of the Geek, in which he will appear next on November 17 at 7pm at Seven Arts Centre, Chapel Allerton, Leeds.

The 26-year-old said: “I don’t think people become obsessed with technology, I think there are people out there with addictive personalities. It’s like anything, if you really want to give up smoking, you can. Of course, there is a chemical addiction with smoking and that is not the case with technology.

“Nevertheless, things like iPhones and tablets are designed to be used for long periods. We have to look at them as toys and so in terms of when we use them, it’s up to us. I have a habit of turning my laptop off instead of just putting it to sleep, the only technology I have in the bedroom is an alarm clock.

“But there are differences in certain technologies. One of the reasons devices like Kindle and other e-readers are so much easier on the eye is that the screen only loads up once, whereas with a TV or laptop, it is constantly refreshing. It’s only a microflash but it’s enough to tire the eye but not in a way which is conducive to sleep.”

John Garner (left) and Gareth Marshall of LDC

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