Bedtime Arousal, Sleep Quality Not Significantly Affected by Social Media Use


Contrary to previous expectations, 30 minutes of social media before bedtime did not significantly increase arousal or disturb sleep for study participants.

Selina Ladina Combertaldi, MSc, senior researcher, department of psychology, University of Fribourg in Germany

Selina Ladina Combertaldi, MSc

Findings from a recent study suggest social media use before sleep did not significantly increase bedtime arousal, nor did it disturb objective or subjective sleep. The amount of time spent engaging in social media before bedtime had the strongest effect on sleep, as wakeup times are often determined by external factors, leading investigators to recommend limiting consumption at bedtime.

A total of 32 healthy volunteers with a mean age of 22.5 years (standard deviation [SD], 3.0) were included in the study. Participants in the “media” group were instructed to use social media for 30 minutes—with blue-light effects excluded—and were studied in a sleep laboratory. Thirty minutes of social media use was compared with 30 minutes of progressive muscle relaxation (PMR) in the “relax” group, as well as those in an untreated “neutral” sleep group. 

After social media use, participants spent less time in sleep stage N2, averaging 43.37 minutes (SD, 1.33%), compared with the neutral condition group, with participants averaging 47.19 minutes (SD, 1.09%; P = .008). Those in the “relax” PMR group did not differ in time when compared to the media group, with participants averaging 46.40 minutes (SD, 1.04%; P = .12). Participants in the relax group that underwent PMR also had a reduced heart rate, which indicated and confirmed the expected positive effect on pre-sleep arousal. 

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“We assumed that pre-sleep social media use would impair sleep as indexed by subjective (self-report) and objective (arousal, sleep) indicators,” first author Selina Ladina Combertaldi, MSc, senior researcher, department of psychology, University of Fribourg in Germany, et al wrote. “To investigate these effects, a condition with social media use was compared to a neutral (no specific pre-sleep activity) and a pre-sleep relaxation (progressive muscle relaxation, PMR) condition. Contrarily to our assumptions, social media use did not impair subjective sleep parameters. This result contradicts findings from previous studies providing proof for the existence of such an adverse effect as indicated by self-reports about a decrease in sleep quality, shorter sleep duration, prolonged sleep onset, and more wake reactions.”

Via the Score for Allergic Rhinitis questionnaire, patients in the relax group undergoing PMR reported improved subjective sleep quality, when compared to the neutral and media groups (26.80 [SD, 0.44]; P <.001 for post hoc tests). Investigators noted the benefits of PMR, as it was also found to improve sleep efficiency (98.54 [SD, 0.45]; P = .002), reduce sleep onset latency (6.50 [SD, 2.16]; P = .002), and shorten the time to reach slow-wave sleep (32.11 [SD, 5.55]; P = .14), compared to the other groups. Experimental manipulation did not affect spindle bands or oscillatory power in the slow-wave activity. 

Study participants were regular users of social media and were required to be users of WhatsApp and/or Snapchat. Other inclusion criteria required participants to have a regular sleep rhythm (not working night shifts) and to abstain from alcoholic and caffeinated beverages for 48 hours ahead of the study. Using the Pittsburgh Sleep Quality Index, participants were found to have a mean score of 5.8 points (SD, 1.4) for the month leading up to the study. 

The study was limited in that blue light exposure was reduced, which may affect sleep, and requires additional research. Participants also engaged in “real-time” chatting via WhatsApp and Snapchat, which may not be as arousing as the passive engagement employed when scrolling on Facebook or Instagram. Data protection also prevented investigators from checking the content of participants’ social media and was noted as information that could be helpful. The controlled sleep laboratory setting also limited the study, as external validity was reduced, and social media use was limited to 30 minutes. 

“Social media use before sleep in real-life oftentimes exceeds 30 mins (the limit in our study procedure. Delaying bedtime due to prolonged media use might have additional impairing effects on sleep and on the duration of sleep going beyond the findings of this study, especially if we consider when wake-up times are externally determined by school hours or working schedules,” Combertaldi et al wrote. “Thus, while the sole activity of using social media itself does not appear to have strong detrimental effects on sleep architecture, it is still recommendable to limit the use of any media activity at bedtime in order to get a sufficient amount of restorative sleep.”

Combertaldi SL, Ort A, Cordi M, Fahr A, Rasch B. Pre-sleep social media use does not strongly disturb sleep: a sleep laboratory study in healthy young participants. Sleep Med. 2021;87:191-202. doi:10.1016/j.sleep.2021.09.009
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