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Does Social Media Affect Your Sleep?

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One thing scientists know for sure is that the light from screens increases our alertness and delays sleep time. They also know exactly why this happens. A question that has recently been asked is – what is the relationship between social media and our sleep?

Many studies have shown that there is a correlation between social media use and sleep problems, but the authors usually note that they can’t conclude whether social media is used excessively because of the already existing sleep problems or whether sleep problems are caused by social media.

Here we look at how social media changes our brain and what research says about their correlation with sleep. We also give some advice on what to do if you find yourself using social media excessively.

Social media and the human brain – the addiction

An interesting study from 2017 shows that the brain anatomy of a person who is addicted to social networking sites (SNS) is very similar to that of a gambling, drug, or any other addict. The scientists looked into MRI brain scans of SNS addicts and focused on these brain regions:

  • Nucleus accumbens (NAc) – it plays a role in addictive behaviors through rewards and it is also one of the dopamine-releasing areas,
  • The amygdala – it plays a role in emotions, impulsive reactions and reward system like the NAc,
  • Midcingulate cortex (MCC) – it is responsible for self-control (stopping oneself from the impulsive needs).

In addicted people, the first two areas are typically hyperactive and overly sensitive because of constant repetitive reward-related behaviors. The third one, MCC, is too weak and unable to prevent addictive behaviors.

They found that the grey matter volume in the amygdala was lower the more a person was addicted to SNS, which leads to strong impulsive reactions and behaviors. Grey matter volume in MCC was higher with the addiction, whereas the NAc was not affected. The NAc is greatly affected in those suffering from substance abuse addictions. This is how SNS addiction shapes the brain slightly differently than what substances do. What it clinically means is that SNS addiction should be treated differently than substance addiction.

What’s the role of dopamine in SNS addiction?

Dopamine is known for its role in motivation and the fulfilling feeling of reward. It is produced when we do activities which give us pleasure, like eating or drinking something delicious, but also when we exercise and have success in interactions with other people.

Dopamine is also ‘guilty’ when we want to repeat pleasurable activities over and over because it reinforces activities which preceded its release.

Drugs trigger dopamine release, making people want to do more drugs, and the same neural pathways are activated when we receive texts and smiles from people we love and, generally, when we yield a positive reaction from other people. Therefore, research has shown that dopamine is the key brain chemical which makes us feel good when we receive likes, comments, and messages on social media.

However, dopamine has another role. It makes us more alert. This is why some people feel euphoria after sleep deprivation – the body releases dopamine to keep them awake, which also makes them feel uplifted.

Social media and sleep – the negative correlation

Recently there have been many studies whose aim was to find out whether there is a relationship between social media use and sleep. In 2014, a study on young US adults collected information about their time spent on social media and the number of visits per week. They were then assessed for sleep problems. What was found was that people who spent more time on and visited social media more often had a lot higher chances to suffer from sleep problems.

Another study, by the same authors, looked into what happens if social media is used just before sleep. They found that those who check their social media accounts about 30 minutes or less before sleep have high chances of suffering from sleep disturbances. Not only that, but the more often they checked, the more sleep disturbances they had.

The dangers of social media impact

Social media is used by the majority of young people, especially teenagers. These are some of the dangers of social media use just before or during the time which is supposed to be sleep time.

  • Excessive daytime sleepiness. Those who use SNS late at night have low energy, poor attention and are likely to use sleep medications as an aid.
  • Low sleep quality, anxiety, and depression. A study on teenagers has shown that late-night social media use is dangerous for young people’s mental health, and especially for their sleep.
  • Mood disorders. Not getting enough sleep has a big impact on our emotions and reactions to daily stresses.
  • Poor self-image. Constantly looking at pictures of other people’s successes makes teens and young people compare their looks and lives to those of other people, leading to this problem.
  • Health problems. Poor sleep over a long period of time results in hormonal imbalances, weak immune system, and poor decisions, including those about one’s health.

Should we be seeing social media as the only problematic factor?

Social media use diminishes our sleep quality in many ways, but it can’t be observed on its own, that is, without taking into consideration how technology in general gives our bodies arousing signals (time-giving signals are also called zeitgebers). Here is an overall image of what social media use does.

  • Social media increases dopamine, making us want to check our accounts over and over (as we grow tired, we are less likely to control our urge to check, so it’s easy to fall in the trap of just aimlessly scrolling down the websites)
  • Notification sounds might give us a dopamine surge even if we don’t want to check social media
  • Dopamine makes us more alert, even though it is sleep time
  • Light coming from computer and phone screens also makes us alert by inhibiting melatonin, our ‘sleep hormone’
  • It doesn’t only inhibit melatonin. LED light, through certain cells in our eyes, sends our internal body clock wrong information – that it is daytime. This may result in circadian rhythm disorders, like going to bed too late and getting up too late.
  • Social media increases anxiety and depression, which are linked to an overworked amygdala (fear and emotion brain center) and increased stress hormones – a condition which also prevents us from falling asleep.
  • High stress levels may have an impact on sleep quality. It is known that under too much stress, a person is likely to spend most of the night in light sleep or REM, skipping deep sleep. Deep sleep is the stage in which our cells and tissues are restored and the toxins are washed out of the brain.
  • Even if SNS was used in the afternoon, a young person might easily be kept awake at night because of cyber-bullying or expecting a message from a special someone.

What should you do about social media and sleep?

If you have children or teenagers, do your best to keep them off the devices. It’s easier to forbid all social media than to deal with extreme reactions they might have once they are addicted and you try to take the device away. Children and teens may need about 9-10 hours of sleep (depending on age) and late-night screen time is making it difficult to achieve this number.

If you are addicted, try to curb the nighttime use of social media for the beginning. Check all the sites you need to check and leave the phone in another room as you’re getting ready to sleep.

Try to make a small bedtime routine that can keep you away from the phone. For example, after checking social media; have a shower, put away your clothes and choose your outfit for the following day. Then do some stretching, relaxation or read a book.

Slowly decrease the time and lower the number of your visits to social media.

Remember the effect screens have on your sleep, so don’t just turn off the social media app and remain on your phone while in bed.

If you can’t fall asleep, refrain from using your phone. Make a backup plan on what you’re going to do in those situations. You can have a pencil and paper near the bed and jot down some ideas for the following day, or continue reading the book.

Although social media has many negative effects, it can be a good tool to keep in touch with friends and family, but only when used responsibly. When not, it devours our motivation and our time, including our sleep time.

Additional resources

  1. Levenson J. C, Shensa A, et al. The association between social media use and sleep disturbance among young adults. Preventive medicine. April 2016. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26791323 Accessed March 30, 2019.
  2. Gever, J. Social Media and Sleep: Is There a Problem? A Report from SLEEP 2015, the annual conference of the Associated Professional Sleep Societies. https://www.medpagetoday.com/MeetingCoverage/APSS/52083 Accessed March 30, 2019.
  3. He Q, Turel O, and Bechara A. Brain anatomy alterations associated with Social Networking Site (SNS) addiction. Scientific Reports. 2017. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5362930/ Accessed March 30, 2019.
  4. Krach S, Paulus F. M, et al.The Rewarding Nature of Social Interactions. Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience. 2010.
    https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2889690/ Accessed March 30, 2019.

The information on this website is not intended to replace a one-on-one relationship with a qualified health care professional and is not intended as medical advice. Read our full medical disclaimer.

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