The jury’s in: Nightshift modes on your phone don’t help your sleep

Sleep is an increasingly elusive state for so many these days. Perform a quick search for ways to beat insomnia, and leaving your smartphone out of the bedroom will always appear as one of the first suggestions. Indeed, you’ve no doubt heard it a million times already, but all the blue light emitted by smartphones can do a serious number on our sleep cycles and melatonin production.

Still, despite all that, tens of millions make a habit of scrolling away just before bed. Many justify their nighttime habits by pointing to their phone’s “night shift” mode.

First introduced by Apple in 2016, and subsequently mimicked by Android phones and other smartphone varieties, night shift modes change a screen’s output to warmer hues once the sun goes down. The idea is that with less blue light being emitted, one can stare at their phone for hours on end before drifting to dreamland. 

Your phone is still hurting your sleep

It’s a great concept in theory, but does it actually help with sleep? For the first time, researchers at Brigham Young University have investigated the sleep effectiveness of smartphone night shift modes. All in all, they say they collected no evidence suggesting such modes help improve sleep onset or patterns.

“In the whole sample, there were no differences across the three groups,” explains study co-author and BYU psychology professor Chad Jensen. “Night Shift is not superior to using your phone without Night Shift or even using no phone at all.”

The research team analyzed three experimental groups. One consisted of individuals who only use their phone at night with the night shift switched on, another was made up of people who use their phones at night without night shift, and the third group did not use their phones at all just before bed. 

In all, 167 adults took part. Everyone was instructed to spend at least eight hours per night in bed and wear a sleep tracking device. Smartphone use was also tracked. Regarding specific sleep outcomes, study authors kept track of how long it took each person to fall asleep, sleep duration, and sleep quality.

Initially, the three groups showed little difference in terms of sleep performance. So, researchers decided to change things up and constructed two new groups. The first was told to sleep for about seven hours per night and the other slept for less than six hours per night on average.

Interestingly, the group sleeping for seven hours experienced a “slight difference” in their sleep quality based on phone use. In this group, not using a phone resulted in better sleep than scrolling before bed regardless of night mode. Meanwhile, smartphones and night modes made no difference among the six-hour sleep group.

“This suggests that when you are super tired you fall asleep no matter what you did just before bed,” Jensen explains. “The sleep pressure is so high there is really no effect of what happens before bedtime.”

The research team also stressed that it may not just be the blue light from smartphones that are keeping us up all night. After all, these devices provide the entire world at our fingertips. 

“While there is a lot of evidence suggesting that blue light increases alertness and makes it more difficult to fall asleep, it is important to think about what portion of that stimulation is light emission versus other cognitive and psychological stimulations,” Jensen concludes.

All in all, according to these results you shouldn’t count on night shift mode easing you to sleep each night. However, it’s also worth noting that scrolling isn’t a surefire avenue to insomnia either. If you’re tired enough, you’ll sleep, regardless of whatever’s trending.

The full study can be found here, published in Sleep Health.