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Sleepless in America: How Digital Devices Keep Us Up All Night

At least 95 percent of us use some kind of electronic device within an hour of bedtime and it's robbing us of precious sleep.

Danny Fulton gets into bed every night at 10 p.m., plenty of time for a solid eight hours of rest before his alarm goes off in the morning. But the 31-year-old —who’s struggled to sleep all his life — almost never falls asleep before 3 a.m. Instead, he watches television, plays on his tablet, or checks his phone for work emails.

“I’m not decompressing, I’m not checking out, I’m keeping myself going for hours and hours and hours on end,” Fulton said. “The devices really empower me to do that. It’s not the device’s fault, I certainly control [them]. But sometimes, I cannot. I can’t put it down.”

Fulton’s not alone. At least 95 percent of people use some kind of electronic device — TV, a computer, a phone or a tablet — within an hour of bedtime, according to the National Sleep Foundation. Nearly one in five adults sends or receives work-related email before bed.

The problem? Those electronic devices may be contributing to our sleep-deprived society. Eight-five percent of American adults tell the Better Sleep Council they have trouble sleeping at night. One in ten suffers from more serious chronic insomnia, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Since lack of sleep is linked to obesity, depression, cardiovascular disease and diabetes, the CDC declared sleep deprivation a “public health epidemic” in 2014.

Watch: This is how much sleep you should be getting

“The big problem with light exposure that we get from electronics is that it is delaying what our brain interprets as sunset,” said Dr. Charles Czeisler, a sleep doctor at Harvard Medical School. He explained the blue light from our screens sends a signal to our brains that it’s still daylight, triggering a surge of energy and blocking the melatonin that makes us sleepy.

So what can you do to boost your chances of getting a good night’s rest?

  • Create a charging station in another room to power your devices overnight. Don’t keep them on the bedside table.
  • Buy a real alarm clock — don’t use your phone. “It’s better to have an alarm clock that is not interrupting your sleep in the middle of the night,” said Czeisler, “than to have a [phone-based] alarm clock that is waking you up at all hours.”
  • Turn off all your screens — televisions, phones, computers — an hour before bed. Read from a printed book instead of a tablet, for example.
  • If that’s not realistic for you, try an app that flips your screen’s background. Instead of black letters on a white background (like you’re reading right now), it will show white letters on a black background, helping to cut down on how much light is emitted.
  • Start good habits early, especially with your kids. A startling 75 percent of children have at least one electronic device in the bedroom when they sleep, according to the National Sleep Foundation. Create a bedtime routine for that does not involve electronics.

Paradoxically, even though many Americans are staying up to get more work done, lack of sleep can make for a more difficult day at the office. Seventy-five percent of people over 30 who don’t get enough sleep say it affects their work, according to the National Sleep Foundation.

“If you're exhausted, you're exhausted and people can tell," said Fulton. "We all need to be shooting our best game, playing our best game every day in today's world. When you don't get enough sleep, you have no chance to do that.”