Sleep and Health

This section will examine how screens disrupt both quality and quantity of sleep and the many ways in which sleep impacts mental and physical health.

For suggestions and solutions, see Empower: Mental Health, Social Media and Sleep.



Technology impacts the quantity and quality of sleep in three ways:

Blue light from devices affects our natural sleep cycles by delaying the body’s release of melatonin.

Information overload and activity absorption also affects our ability to unplug. Endless scrolling, another chapter and one more email keep us from settling down to sleep and also affect quality of sleep.

Distractions, especially troublesome for tweens and teens, prevent us from settling down to sleep and/or staying asleep. Anticipation of and actual texts, calls and alerts, even when silenced, can interfere with quality sleep.

Quantity and quality of sleep negatively affect mood, relationships and mental health.

Sleep deprivation negatively impacts areas of the brain responsible for motivation, emotional response, emotional regulation, emotional processing, repetitive thinking and empathy. All of which are linked to mood disorders and mental illness and health issues.



Rates of depression and anxiety have remained stable until recently:



7% of Boys

Up from 5% in 2010

20% of Girls

Up from 12% in 2010


Hospital Admission for Non-Fatal Self-Harm

No significant change in boys


Girls ages 10-14

up 189%

since 2009

Girls ages 15-19

up 62%

since 2009


The statistics above are alarming and many health professionals and researchers are conducting studies in an attempt to understand why.

What is the cause?

Based of preliminary data and consideration of timing and sex differences, many in the field see a correlation between mental health and the increased use of smartphones and social media by children.

By 2010, more than half of middle and high schoolers have smartphones and social media. And that number has risen steadily since.

Sleep Disruption.

At one point or another, we have all experienced the effects of too little sleep. Sleep can affect our mood, relationships and mental health.

Hold up. How does technology affect sleep?

There is no questions that blue light affects our natural sleep cycles, or circadian rhythms, by delaying the bodies release of melatonin. Research suggests that 5 nights of exposure to blue light from devices can delay the natural body clock by 1.5 hours.

Information overload and activity absorption also affects our ability to unplug. Endless scrolling, one more chapter, one more email keep us from settling down to sleep and also affect quality of sleep.

Distractions, especially troublesome for tweens and teens, prevent us from settling down to sleep and/or staying asleep. Anticipation of and actual texts, calls and alerts, even when silenced, can interfere with quality sleep and even wake us.

Insomnia and sleep disruption can amplify the effects of psychiatric disorders, and vice versa. Teens who are already suffering the negative mental health effects of social media may have worsening effects due to sleep deprivation.

Ok so How does the quality and quantity of sleep affect mood, relationships and mental health?

  • Deepest sleep produces physiological changes that help boost immune system functions.

  • REM sleep enhances learning and memory, and contributes to emotional health.

  • People with insomnia and other sleep issues do not respond as well to treatments of depression.

Sleep deprivation:

  • interferes with the brain processing center, disrupts mood and increases risks for depression, risk-taking behavior and addiction.

  • causes the amygdala to go into overdrive, which in turn causes us to react more intensely to situations.

  • interferes with emotional regulation which contributes to further negative feelings.

  • impacts impulsivity which can lead to irrational behavior and decreased sense of well-being.

  • increases repetitive negative thinking which leads to depression and anxiety.

  • produces unmetered, inappropriate emotional reactions, and inability to place events into a broader or considered context.

  • amplifies anticipatory anxiety.

  • impairs empathy.

  • undermines our ability to exhibit self-control which could contribute to overuse of social media and technology.

What about physical health impacts of disrupted sleep?

Bright light reduces levels of the hormone melatonin, which regulates sleep, and decreases leptin, which makes you feel full. At the same time, bright light increases ghrelin, which makes you feel hungry. So more time with computers and phones can make us gain weight not just because we’re more sedentary, but because of their effect on our sleep cycles.

Melatonin also plays an important role in strengthening the immune system.

NIH: "Youth should be advised to limit or reduce screen time exposure, especially before or during bedtime hours to minimize any harmful effects of screen time on sleep and well-being."

Harvard University: "Exposure to blue light at night, emitted by electronics and energy-efficient lightbulbs, [is] harmful to your health. At night, light throws the body's biological clock—the circadian rhythm—out of whack. Sleep suffers. Worse, research shows that it may contribute to the causation of cancer, diabetes, heart disease, and obesity."

The Sleep Foundation: "Children and adults behave differently as a result of sleepiness. Adults usually become sluggish when tired while children tend to overcompensate and speed up. For this reason, sleep deprivation is sometimes confused with ADHD in children. Children may also be moody, emotionally explosive, and/or aggressive as a result of sleepiness. In a study involving 2,463 children aged 6-15, children with sleep problems were more likely to be inattentive, hyperactive, impulsive, and display oppositional behaviors. "

The Washington Post: Blue light from electronics disturbs sleep, especially for teenagers.Harvard sleep expert Dr. Steve Lockey: "Sleep is important for learning, memory, brain development, health ... We’re systematically sleep-depriving kids when their brains are still developing, and you couldn’t design a worse system for learning.”

Learn More about Technology and Sleep.

Children and Screens - This brief report summarizes the literature on electronic media and sleep and provides research recommendations. This topic is important and timely because of the pervasive and understudied use of screen-based media and the high prevalence of insufficient sleep among American youth and teens. Recent systematic reviews demonstrate that an overwhelming number of studies indicate an adverse relationship between healthful sleep and screen use, because screen time results in later bedtimes and reduced total sleep time. 

American Association of Sleep Technologists - (Article with suggestions) Most people today go to bed with their cell phone, tablet, laptop, or television to keep them company. Unfortunately, the result of that can be a long night of wakefulness prompted by the light from these devices along with the stimulating mental activity required to play games, watch movies, or take care of last-minute work-related emails before turning in.

There’s also the risk that they’ll become wrapped up in what they’re doing and continue long past the time they’d normally go to sleep. All these things combine to leave your patients getting less sleep than they’re accustomed to and far less than they need.

The Sleep Foundation - Electronics in the Bedroom: Why it’s important to turn off before you turn in.

The Sleep Judge - Information overload can preventing your mind from settling down to sleep, causing both delayed sleep and less restful sleep.

National Sleep Foundation - Three ways gadgets are keeping you awake: suppression of Melatonin, brain alertness, and waking you up.

National Sleep Foundation - The blue light that’s emitted from these screens can delay the release of sleep-inducing  melatonin, increase alertness, and reset the body’s internal clock (or  circadian rhythm ) to a later schedule. This is an especially big problem for teens whose circadian rhythms are already shifting naturally, causing them to feel awake later at night. The end result: sleep-deprived or poorly rested kids who have essentially given themselves a mini case of jet lag.

Harvard Medical School - Blue Light has a Dark Side - Light at night is part of the reason so many people don't get enough sleep, says Lockley, and researchers have linked short sleep to increased risk for depression, as well as diabetes and cardiovascular problems.

Learn More about Sleep Deprivation and Mental Health.

Technology Networks - A large literature of studies on depression and reward circuitry have found that depression is characterized by less activity in the brain’s reward system. The results suggest that sleep deprivation in the tween and teen years may interfere with how the brain processes rewards, which could disrupt mood and put a person at risk of depression, as well as risk-taking behavior and addiction.

Journal of Neuroscience - “Sleep Deprivation Amplifies Reactivity of Brain Reward Networks, Biasing the Appraisal of Positive Emotional Experiences.” Sleep deprivation affects the emotional rapid response area of the brain, known as the amygdala. When short on sleep, the amygdala goes into overdrive, causing us to be more intensely reactive to situations.

National Institute of Health - “Sleep deprivation and interference by emotional distracters.” At the same time the amygdala is fired up, lack of sleep also hampers the communication between the amygdala and another area of the brain involved in emotional regulation—the prefrontal cortex. This part of the brain handles a lot of complex tasks, and one of them is to put the brakes on impulsiveness. 

Medical News Today - Scientists working with adults who fixate on negative thoughts have noted a link between this distressing compulsion and poorer-quality sleep, as well as shorter sleep duration. Repetitive negative thinking occurs when a person compulsively lingers on thoughts and stimuli that are distressing and unhelpful, which often leads to a decreased quality of life and the emergence of mental health problems, tied to depression and anxiety, in particular.

UC Berkeley - Neuroscientists have found that sleep deprivation amplifies anticipatory anxiety by firing up the brain’s amygdala and insular cortex, regions associated with emotional processing. The resulting pattern mimics the abnormal neural activity seen in anxiety disorders. 

Wiley Online Library - Our results indicate that a night of sleep loss impairs the ability to share the emotional state of others, which is an important skill in everyday social interactions in both the workplace and personal life. These findings are consistent with previous research revealing negative effects of sleep loss on cognition and emotional processing in general, and extend these effects to emotional empathy in particular.

Biological Psychiatry - Sleep disturbance and psychiatric disorders: A longitudinal epidemiological study of young Adults. Michigan HMO conducted study finds that those who reported a history of insomnia were 4 times more likely to develop depression than normal sleepers.

University of Oxford - The Wellcome-funded study was conducted by researchers at the Sleep and Circadian Neuroscience Institute, University of Oxford. It found that sleep disruption is a driving factor in the occurrence of paranoia, hallucinatory experiences, and other mental health problems in young adults (university students) with an average age of 25.