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eReaders Can Disrupt Your Sleep, and Other Nonsense

6456909487_ded56f703a_bYesterday’s news about the new study on sleep disruption is generating a lot of buzz. In addition to the publications like the Washington Post that missed the context and background details, there are many news sources that can’t even get the foreground details right.

August publications from the NY Daily News to the BBC misreported the story, instead writing things like:

Using an e-reader at bedtime could worsen your sleep, according to a new study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Researchers from Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School studied participants for two weeks and found significant differences in levels of sleep and alertness the next day depending on whether participants read a book or an e-reader before bed.

Anne-Marie Chang, now an associate professor of biobehavioral health at Pennsylvania State University, said the blue-wavelength light that devices emit causes negative effects on sleep because it impedes circadian rhythms. Chang also said that the light from e-readers going directly into people’s eyes may keep their body clocks from telling the brain that it’s really time for bed.

9973361853_49a77f38b5[1]That would be worrisome news if not for the fact that the participants in the study read on an iPad, not an ereader.

To be fair, some of the regurgitated stories do go on to mention the iPad, but that doesn’t change the fact that they got large parts of the story completely wrong, or that they missed half the story.

It also doesn’t change the fact that many types of backlit screens can have a similar disruptive effect on your sleep patterns. That includes your computer monitor, smartphone, TV, tablet, laptop, and what have you.

And just to be clear, I do not know of any study which has tested whether the frontlight on the Kindle will disrupt your sleep patterns, so there is no reason to mention that word at all.

But you wouldn’t be able to tell that detail from the coverage of this study, alas.

images by Karli Martzquinn.anya

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Kannon December 23, 2014 um 5:38 pm

I’m hoping that one day a manufacturer releases an e-ink e reader with a red or amber LED back light. It wouldn’t look anything like paper, but it would be a lot easier on the eyes. And red light emitting diodes actually use less power than white ones.

Lynne Connolly December 23, 2014 um 5:39 pm

Not to mention there are apps that will take the blue light out of the screen for you, like Twilight.
I turn the brightness right down. problem solved. If i wake up in the night and I want to read a book, I have to turn the light on. Oh, there it is, bright blue light.

Felipe Adan Lerma December 24, 2014 um 10:10 am

That’s good to know, thanks Lynne. And I can’t even remember which app, Kindle or Scribd (or maybe both), but I can adjust my brightness etc in the controls.

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Tom Semple December 29, 2014 um 10:52 pm

if you read the study, it turns out that the iPads were set to "maximum brightness", rather than what is the default, 'automatically adjust brightness'. That is pretty much guaranteed to disturb you when this is done in a "dimly lit room". So the study abandons at the start any pretense of modeling a real world scenario. The intensity of the radiated light was 32 times greater than for a book, and no wonder. What if they were to provide a commensurate amount of lighting of the book? That would be equally artificial and would likely be equally disturbing.

Of course most reading apps offer white text on black background mode, which greatly reduces the amount of radiated light, and in particular that of the short wavelengths they are most concerned with.

They admit that they did not isolate the effect responsible (whether irradiance level or spectral composition). But those are hardly the only differences involved: the participants were not allowed to adjust the position of the 'LE-eBook', or choose the reading material thereon, but were allowed to do so when reading a printed book (hold at any distance and bring their own books). Never mind the light, that would make reading the former physically uncomfortable over the course of four hours, not to mention having to read whatever was placed in front of them instead of being able to choose something you like.

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