How to Enjoy Screen Time at Night Without Ruining Your Sleep – Essentially, your brain keeps track of how much light it was exposed to throughout the day, according to Dr. Wu. “If, five hours ago, there was a lot of light, and now there’s some light from your screen but much less, the brain will still know that it must be evening now, even though there’s still light coming through,” she says. Unless you’re a park ranger, say, you probably don’t spend most of your waking hours outside, but there are other ways to increase your daytime light exposure. Sit by a window, go for as many outdoor walk breaks as you can, and use bright lighting in your home office space—again, the more light you can get during the day, the less disruptive your screens may be, Dr. Wu says.
Turn up the lights at dinnertime.
Increasing the amount of light you’re exposed to in the early evening, around dinnertime, can also soften the negative effects of late-night screen use, Dr. Wu says. If, like me, you’re a bit hooked on your devices, she suggests making a point to turn up your lights a few hours before your bedtime (around 7 p.m. if you turn in at 10, for example). You want to be in sleep-inducing dim light a couple of hours before bed, though, so a short burst of bright light is the goal here: Go outside and watch the sunset if you can, or brighten the kitchen lights as you cook or eat dinner. “Earlier in the evening, you’re briefly injecting yourself with some light so that your body is prepared to make a contrast later in the evening, when there is going to be less light,” Dr. Wu explains.
The takeaway: If you didn’t have a chance to soak in a lot of light throughout the day, all hope isn’t lost. Turning on bright lights in the evening can give your body a chance to come down from heavier exposure in a few hours, when you’re in bed on your phone with the lights out. “That earlier light exposure actually will mitigate the effects of bright lights later in the evening at 10 or 11 p.m.,” Dr. Wu says.
Be mindful of how you use your screens.
Even if you follow the above two steps, if you get in bed and stream a show that puts you on edge—like a true crime series that spikes your heart rate—your screen use might wreak havoc on your sleep. “The content of what you’re doing on your screens may be just as important as the light exposure,” Dr. Wu says.
This is highly individual, of course. Some people are more sensitive to certain types of content than others, so take note of the type of entertainment that relaxes you, versus the kind that makes you jittery. “Sports gambling might be more stimulating than reading a Jane Austen novel on your tablet,” Dr. Wu says. A quick tip: Relaxing doesn’t mean boring. Dr. Wu says people often assume that they should opt for dull things to take in to get sleepy, but boredom can actually frustrate and arouse your brain, so that plan can backfire. “Relaxing means captivating, pleasurable, thought-provoking—whatever it may be, just not super-stimulating,” she says.