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Morgan Ellithorpe
Morgan Ellithorpe, assistant professor of communication, studies how people interact with media.

A good night's sleep

Illustration by Jeffrey C. Chase

Some media use at bedtime can be beneficial, UD researcher finds

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 that time.

“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 short.”

About the research

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 Michigan State.

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.”

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