Coronavirus lockdowns led to more screen exposure, sleep issues, study suggests

A study conducted during Italy’s coronavirus lockdowns last spring suggests increased screen time resulted in sleep disturbances and worsened insomnia symptoms. …

A study conducted during Italy’s coronavirus lockdowns last spring suggests increased screen time resulted in sleep disturbances and worsened insomnia symptoms.

Researchers affiliated with University of L’Aquila published findings in the journal Sleep on May 26, drawing from results on 2,123 Italians who responded to web surveys during the third and seventh week of lockdowns in late March and late April, respectively. Most participants were female, and about 60% were aged 18-30. The surveys assessed sleep quality and insomnia symptoms based on the Pittsburgh Sleep Quality Index and Insomnia Severity Index. 

“The overuse of electronic devices in the hours before sleep was a deeply rooted habit in our society already before the pandemic emergency, in particular among young people,” Dr. Federico Salfi, Ph.D. student and first author of the paper, said in a release posted to EurekAlert.org on Thursday. “In our opinion, the current period of social distancing added fuel to the fire.”

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About 35% of respondents reported an increase in electronic device usage within 2 hours of falling asleep, researchers found.

About 35% of respondents reported an increase in electronic device usage within 2 hours of falling asleep, researchers found. (iStock)

While just over one-third of respondents reported an increase in electronic device usage within 2 hours of falling asleep, 58% reported no change, while 7% cut down their time spent on devices. Those spending more time on devices before falling asleep demonstrated “decreased sleep quality, exacerbation of insomnia symptoms, reduced sleep duration, and longer sleep onset latency,” the study reads.

Researchers noted a consistently higher prevalence of poor sleepers and moderate-to-severe insomnia with the group reporting increased screen time before sleep. Additional findings suggested the group saw a shift to a later sleep cycle, or later bedtimes and mornings.

In contrast, and less common, people who cut down on screen exposure saw improvements in sleep quality, an earlier sleep cycle, and fewer issues relating to insomnia. The results upheld after researchers adjusted for age, gender, genetically-driven sleep preferences and underlying issues like depression, stress and anxiety.

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Study authors note that adequate sleep is key in managing stress, protecting mental health, regulating mood and processing emotions, as well as supporting the immune system.

“The increased screen time and its consequences on sleep health may negatively affect psychological well-being increasing anxiety, depression and stress symptoms during the current pandemic period,” authors wrote.

Given the findings, researchers said that governments should create policies shedding light on healthy sleep practices during the pandemic, warning against too much screen time at night.

“The evening use of blue-light blocking glasses and the application of a blue wavelength light filter (night shift settings) on the electronic screens should be encouraged to mitigate the well-known detrimental consequences of bright light exposure,” authors wrote. “In addition, the implementation of psychophysiologically and emotionally arousing screen-based activities such as computer work and surfing the Internet, playing videogames, and overuse of media to obtain information about COVID-19 should be discouraged before the sleep onset.”

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