My Resolution for 2015: To Sleep (and Dream... and Create)

14/01/2015 08:45 GMT | Updated 15/03/2015 09:59 GMT

Which critical idea or digital activity could have the greatest impact on your health and well-being in 2015? Is it an app? A wearable? A Mindfulness platform? After almost a decade of working with young people and their use of devices, and in e-Mental Health Services, I can confidently say to these options 'none of the above'. They are the bandage, the sticking plaster for what has already become disturbed. For what can truly make a difference one really has to search hard for an idea that will past the 'lift test', one that can be conveyed in the 15 second elevator journey and bring genuine benefit to the year ahead.

Sleep disruption is one of the main symptoms reported by the young people I work with who are seeking help to control their use of games, Smartphones, tablets or laptops. The digital detox, for as long as it can be tolerated (nerves of steel required), always improves the amount and apparent quality of sleep - even for those who do not believe themselves to be addicted. Some recent research seems to indicate that similar improvements in concentration and mood, including a greater sense of ease, may all flow from the improved sleep.

Yet what it is that disrupts our capacity for sleep, and the sleep that allows for dreaming? Is it just the distraction of using devices that delays sleep or is it actually a chemical effect that their use has on our brain?

Like many before, I have previously focussed on the effects of neurochemicals such as dopamine, because of its association with digitally stimulated rewards and addictions, and thought it was dopamine that kept a person engaged in their activities, whether strategic game-play or social media and messaging. We keep doing that something that feels rewarding, perhaps releasing more dopamine in the process. Multi-tasking or task-switching may also play their part ('buzzy' in their own right), but could the answer be more complicated?

As intelligent, mobile connected devices such as Smartphones took up residence in all pockets and handbags, I did start to perceive a difference in use; mobile gaming seemed less of an excitement, and more of a de-stressor. A key symptom of behavioural addiction, as defined by Professor Mark Griffiths of Nottingham University, is mood modification, and in my early work the 'buzz' of excitement that lifted the mood was the powerful influencer regarding use. However, as in other areas, the use of devices to now bring calm, to de-stress, appeared the greater priority, as it might the person who reaches for the glass of wine at the end of the working day. But if devices were now used to de-stress, shouldn't we be sleeping better now?

Recent research from Harvard University on the impact of evening screen time upon sleep, published in December 2014, has been enormously helpful in understanding the processes further in a number of ways. Firstly, average sleep duration and quality sleep has plummeted over the last 50 years. This is almost coincident with the advent of the microprocessor and widespread adoption of transistorised TV in 1959. Worthy of some consideration.

Secondly, and with some elegance, the Harvard researchers investigated the impact of short-wavelength light from an e-Reader upon sleep. I have argued before ( that we have to be smarter in our untangling of digital activities if we are to better understand the processes. This is a brilliantly designed piece of research, as it narrows the possible rewards obtainable from the screen-based activity. Further, they compared this impact to someone reading a paper book in dim light. The results were striking: the e-Reader led to a 55% reduction of the sleep hormone Melatonin, and the reader took longer to get to sleep and struggled with wakefulness and alertness the following day. More intriguing was the reduction in REM sleep, which is that phase of sleep in which we dream, which may, as sleep does in general, have both a refreshing and detoxifying effect upon our mental functioning. As suggested above, this study brings the focus to the screen, and the light from it, rather than any rewards from gaming or social media, which may influence or underpin what follows their use, especially when excessive.

One consequence of evening screen time is that over time we can become sleep deficient, a state that is associated with serious health issues. NHS Choices suggests that 'regular poor sleep puts you at risk of serious medical conditions including obesity, heart disease and diabetes - and it shortens your life expectancy'. Quite important then! But the more ordinary feelings of tiredness and irritability, and poor concentration may also underpin some of the more toxic aspects of online life such as cyberbullying. Do we also seek more extreme content to stimulate us as we sleepwalk through the day? Certainly those who have learnt to manage their use better seem warmer, calmer and happier, and less prone to irritable outbursts, or rapid, reflex responses to others.

There is still more to learn about the type of light that affects some if not all of us, but for now the resolution for me is to establish a digital curfew, with no lit-screen activity at least an hour before bed-time, and no last minute checks or updates. And this may be quite an important public health issue, especially for young people, such that their right to sleep at night might be something even schools address.

Yet there is more to explore. When we don't automatically reach for the device, in that gap the unconscious gets a chance to work, and that creative engine of our minds at the heart of dreaming, comes alive again.

Jarvis Cocker, the 'Visionary of the Year' according to The Independent has some good insight into the impact of devices and our creative abilities. "It's interesting that most gadgets are called 'iPhone' and 'iPod,' with that 'i' prefix, which is ego. But most creativity is not ego-led - a lot of it comes from the unconscious. So if you're always checking your email or updating your Instagram profile, you're not just looking out the window, daydreaming. You've got to let the subconscious in - that's my main message to the world." - Jarvis Cocker