Concerned about sleep hygiene? A little media before bed can be as beneficial as counting sheep

Feeling tired? Wondering if screen time affects your sleep?  

A recent study by an interdisciplinary team of MSU researchers shows that watching a little TV or streaming something on your iPad or smart phone can actually be beneficial to night-time slumber. Allison Eden of the MSU College of Communication Arts and Sciences said she was surprised by the research results, but intrigued by support for a more nuanced view on the effects of media on sleep.  

“People worry a lot about screen time and the effects on attention, health and well-being,” said Eden, an associate professor of communication. “While the cultural narrative is that media is bad on a lot of levels, it’s probably more healthy to think about behavior management strategies for your media use since media is so integrated into our lives.” 

As a long-time researcher into how media affects behavior and well-being, Eden teamed with faculty and doctoral researchers across colleges and departments, and set out to test the premise that media disrupts sleep. Researchers included Robin Tucker, assistant professor of food science and human nutrition, and Morgan Ellithorpe, an assistant professor of advertising and public relations, now with the University of Delaware.  

The team found there was a lot of cross-sectional survey work and data collection in labs, but nothing that used scientifically validated sleep measures and media diaries in people’s homes.  

“We realized we couldn’t answer the question until we used those data collection methods,” she said. “We anticipated that the popular narrative was not the total picture.” 

The research began with the assumption that media use before bed was bad for sleep hygiene. A pool of 58 participants ages 19-66 were equipped with a media diary and an EEG sleep monitor to use for a week. On day one, participants learned how to use the data collection tools. On days two, three and four, participants kept a diary of their media use and recorded their sleep patterns using the sleep tracker. At the end of the week, the participants reviewed the diary and data with researchers.  

Contrary to the original assumption, the study showed that participants who used media in bed for a short period fell asleep earlier and enjoyed more sleep. That positive effect diminished if the participant combined media use with other activities, or used media for several hours before getting in bed. Sleep, too, was affected by what the participant viewed—meaning that participants who watched something that amplified negative emotions or stress had a harder time winding down. 

“The big takeaway is to have a plan for when you turn off the lights so you get the amount of sleep that’s good for you,” Eden said. “Try not to have a binge session before bed, and if a certain show or genre winds you up, don’t watch it right before bed. The secret lies in knowing yourself, managing what what you watch, and not doing other things while you’re using media.” 

“The compliant impact of media use before bed on sleep: Results from a combination of objective EEG sleep measurement and media diaries,” is featured in Wiley’s Research Headlines. The paper is the second in a series of research projects launched in 2017 that focus on media use and health behavior. The research was supported by the MSU Trifecta Initiative for Interdisciplinary Health Research, and will be followed by a content analysis of the types of media people use during the day. 

By Ann Kammerer