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Morgan Ellithorpe, assistant professor of communication, studies how people interact with media. She is the lead author of a newly published study on media use and sleep.
Only you can decide
if watching YouTube videos or browsing the Internet before bed is a
good use of your time, but you can rest assured that it doesn’t have to
disturb your sleep, according to a newly published study led by a
University of Delaware researcher.
The research found that under certain conditions, using media shortly
before bed can be beneficial, associated with earlier bedtimes and
longer total sleep time for adults. But for those whose media use is for
longer periods of time, or who multitask media use with other
activities, the effects on sleep are more disruptive, said Morgan
Ellithorpe, assistant professor in the Department of Communication.
“If you are going to use media, like watching TV or listening to
music, before bed, keep it a short, focused session and you are unlikely
to experience negative outcomes in your sleep that night,” said
Ellithorpe, lead author of “The Complicated Impact of Media Use Before
Bed on Sleep,” published Feb. 8 in the Journal of Sleep Research.
The research team worked with 58 participants, who kept a detailed
diary of their media use over three days. During that time, each
participant was connected to an electroencephalograph (EEG) device when
they went to bed in order to get precise measurements of when they fell
asleep and the quality of their sleep. The EEG measuring sleep metrics
was a critical part of the study, Ellithorpe said, because people often
don’t have an accurate sense of their sleep time or quality when they
report it themselves.
The study encompassed traditional media, including television,
videos, Internet browsing and music, but did not ask participants about
social media use. People tend to use social media in many small
increments of time throughout the day, and so the researchers were
concerned that it would be too difficult for participants to accurately
record that use.
Ellithorpe, who said she has always been interested in the
relationship people have with entertainment, conducted the study as a
way of understanding one aspect of that topic. The researchers wanted to
examine the effects on sleep quantity and quality by asking not just
how long participants were using media before bedtime but also where
they were using it and what else, if anything, they were doing during
“I want to understand how we interact with media, for better or
worse,” she said. “Why do people pursue online entertainment? Why do we
binge-watch? Those are all things to explore.”
While participants who limited their media use to a single activity
during the hour before bedtime went to sleep earlier and slept longer,
those who multitasked fell asleep later (known as “sleep
procrastination”) and had a shorter night’s sleep (“sleep
displacement”). Longer media sessions were associated with less sleep as
well. Sleep displacement occurs, Ellithorpe said, because people who
stay up later to continue their media use end up losing sleep. Some may
think they’ll sleep later in the morning to compensate, but jobs and
other responsibilities often make that impossible.
In all these cases, whether media use was associated with more or
less total sleep, the quality of sleep, as measured by the EEG readings
in terms of deep sleep and REM, or rapid eye movement, sleep, was not
affected. Another surprise finding was that using media while in bed
seemed to help, not hinder, sleep, a different result from studies that
found having a television in the bedroom to be detrimental.
“The results of the present study suggest that it may be acceptable,
and beneficial, to use some forms of media before bed, under certain
conditions,” the researchers wrote in their summary of practical
implications. “Specifically, the media use should involve no
multitasking with simultaneous activities and should be kept relatively
The research was conducted in 2018 at Michigan State University, and
Ellithorpe is continuing to examine related issues in her work at UD,
where she joined the faculty in 2020. One of her current projects looks
at intentionality of media use, such as whether a person plans a
stopping point when they begin a media session.
Coauthors of the Journal of Sleep Research paper are Ezgi
Ulusoy, Allison Eden, Lindsay Hahn, Chia-Lun Yang and Robin M. Tucker.
The research was funded by the Center for Innovation Research at
Ellithorpe emphasized that the study involved only adults. Much
research on media use and sleep has focused on children and the negative
effects on them.
“Our research shows that this subject is complex, and the jury is
still out for adults,” she said. “But the research with children is
clearer that media use before bed is detrimental.”
Article by Ann Manser; illustration by Jeffrey C. Chase
Published Feb. 25, 2022
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