Screenless Nights

There’s nothing like the threat of being publically shamed to motivate changing one’s behaviors

A few months ago, Stephen Dubner from Freakonomics Radio interviewed me for one of his popular podcasts exploring behavioral economics.   Expecting to discuss my research, I found myself engaged in in a conversation about my own personal bedtime routines.  I reluctantly shared that, for me, a typical night included looking at my iPhone at bedtime, in the middle of the night while nursing my infant, and usually first thing in the morning.   He was surprised and intrigued that I, despite the abundant research indicating that screen time at night is associated with delayed sleep onset and shorter total sleep time, did not abide by my own recommendations to lay off the electronics.  After a few more questions, I began thinking critically about my own behaviors.  By the conversation’s end, I had vowed not to use a screen of any type (iPhone, iPad, computer, or television) from 9 PM until 7 AM for an entire week.

After I made this declaration--out loud and recorded for national radio broadcast--I immediately felt queasy.   I had so much to do.  With two young kids, it felt like my only time to catch up on work or personal matters was when both children were sleeping.  Ugh, what a bad week for making this screen-free pledge.

I then walked back to my office and, naturally, posted my “I’m going screenless” announcement to my Facebook wall.  Within minutes, friends from high school, college, and grad school joined the band wagon, vowing to cut out nighttime screen time between 9 PM and 7 AM for one whole week.  Now I really had to commit.

Here are some highlights of my experience:

  • I went to bed a lot earlier.  By not letting the Internet or television suck me into the world behind the screen, I was confronted with the reality of piles of laundry, dirty dishes, and unpaid bills.  I could catch up on some of those things each night, but unlike after watching an episode of “The Good Wife,” I was not left wanting another episode, and then another one – and I easily went to bed before 10 PM.
  • I picked up those books and magazines that have been piling up on my bedside table for months.  (Yes, those backlight-less media that are printed on actual paper.)  There was nothing to click on as I read and, as a result, I did not fall into the inescapable YouTube vortex of laughing baby videos.
  • I talked with my husband more.  Without the option of turning on the television or going downstairs to work on my computer, my husband and I had more time together where we did important things, like discuss what’s going on in our lives.  Imagine that, a couple who actually talk to each other.
  • I nursed for shorter periods.  When my infant son woke up needing to nurse, rather than nursing him for 30 minutes while reading the latest Facebook feeds, I nursed him precisely as long as he wanted and put him back in his crib, often completing the whole cycle within 10 minutes. Why was I previously prolonging the nursing sessions in the middle of the night? We’ve all heard about distracted driving, but distracted nursing?  That was definitely not helping him sleep.
  • Interestingly, I also slept in longer.  I know this seems unexpected since I was also going to bed earlier, but remember I had vowed not to use screens until 7 AM.  Prior to this promise, I had been waking up to nurse at 5:30 AM, and would start reading my emails then.  Typically, there were work-related emails that I’d need to respond to, and rather than going back to bed, I’d charge ahead and respond.  Yet when I was on a screen-free diet, I was willfully ignorant of the workings of the world at 5:30 AM and after I was done nursing, I went right back to sleep (and so did my infant).  We both learned to sleep until 7 AM.
  • Perhaps the most important benefit of this screenless experiment was my enriched time with my children. My 4-year-old son loved that I had to follow these new screen-restricting rules. He especially loved telling me in the evenings, long before the 9 PM shut-down time, to “Put your computer away, it’s bad for your sleep.”    The best way to teach my preschooler that screen time is not a nighttime activity is to model it in my own behavior.  He has had that rule for a while, and now he sees that mommy has it too.

A few months have passed since I took this challenge, and even though I’ve relaxed the strict time limits on nighttime screen time, I’m feeling like a whole new person, well-rested and refreshed – or as refreshed as a full-time working mom of an infant and a toddler can be.  To be fair, this is in large part because my infant is now sleeping through the night, but I think eliminating screen time at night helped make that happen.  Sure, it’s true, with my new reduced screen schedule, I don't do as much work at night and I certainly haven’t seen the most popular viral videos this month, but I bet I’m much more productive during the day.  Night time is for sleeping, not screening.

How will eliminating screens from your nighttime hours affect your life?