What Happens To Your Brain When You Check Your Phone As You Wake Up

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We’ve all been there: It's the morning. You’re cozy in bed. Your alarm blares. You reach over to grab your phone so you can turn the alarm off (because of course your phone is also your alarm clock these days). And immediately after you do so, you check your email… then Twitter… then the weather… and the next thing you know, you’ve spent 10 minutes scrolling through everything you missed while you were asleep. But if you’ve never given a thought to what effect checking your phone first thing in the morning might be having on you — on your brain, on your body, on your mindset for the day — it’s worth considering. Is it likely to change your habits? Probably not; after all, surveys show that anywhere between 46% and 61% of people check their phones either before they get out of bed or within five minutes of waking up. Still, though — knowledge is power, right? (Or pizza, perhaps, but… whatever. You know what I mean.)

The effects of checking your phone as soon as you wake up start before you even get to any content — namely, doing so kicks you into alertness. As you might already know, the LED screens found on electronic devices like smartphones, tablets, and computers give off what’s called blue light. Blue light might not necessarily appear blue to human onlookers; indeed, these days, it’s most commonly encountered as part of any bright, white light. But regardless, research has shown that blue light has some peculiar effects on humans: A 2007 study published in the Journal of Neural Transmission identified exposure to blue light as improving cognitive performance; a 2011 study published in the Journal of Applied Physiology found it to have strong melatonin suppression effects on humans; according to a study published in the journal Sleep in 2014, exposure to blue light can help fight fatigue around the clock; and in 2016, a study also published in Sleep observed that even short periods of exposure has “a beneficial effect on working memory performance” — to name just a few.

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Much of the conversation surrounding blue light in recent years has been centered around the fact that, due to the proliferation of technology in our daily lives, we’re often exposed to too much of it late in the day, which can mess with our sleep. What’s more, there’s also a pretty sizeable body of research documenting the damage the exposure to blue light might be doing to our eyes over time. But it’s worth noting that, although blue light certainly has its downsides, there are some benefits to it, too: Namely, that when we’re exposed to it in the morning — like, for example, by looking at your phone screen — it can help us wake up and get moving. Indeed, the single largest source of blue light is sunlight, which suggests that we’re kind of hardwired to spring into alertness during daylight hours.

Of course, what you actually do when you look at your phone first thing in the morning matters, too — and here’s where the negative effects of unlocking your screen right away become more readily apparent.

According to data from the Pew Research Center, the most common ways Americans use their smartphones are for text messaging (97%), voice or video calls (92%), internet access (89%), email (88%) and social networking (75%). These figures mean that, realistically, most people who check their phones first thing in the morning start by catching up on any messages they might have missed during the night — and by doing so, they’re setting themselves up for a day full of stress. Consider the fact that research has found not only that monitoring work emails outside of actual work hours negatively affects our mental health, but also that checking email less overall leads lower stress levels. If you’ve ever felt that sinking feeling of knowing how full your day is going to be right after you wake up, that might be why: You’ve already fallen into the dual traps of monitoring your work email outside of work hours and checking your email a little too frequently.

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It’s also worth noting that, despite the fact that the Pew data states that only 55% of smartphone users regularly check the news with their devices, social media is inextricably tied up with the 24-hour news cycle these days. Indeed, a different Pew report found that 78% of adults under the age of 50 get their news from social media — and, anecdotally, many social media platforms allow for the quick and easy spread of news, as well as on-the-ground reporting of invents happening in real time. As such, if one of the things you do with your phone when you check it first thing in the morning is hop onto Twitter or Facebook to see what’s been going on in the world… well, you’re getting the news, even if you’re not purposefully checking for it.

We’ve long known that exposure to bad news is linked to stress-related emotional responses; a study published in the journal Anxiety, Stress, And Coping in 2001 found both that “news media exposure and anxiety are positively related at low levels of irrationality,” as well as that exposure to news media is “predictive of trait anxiety at low levels of optimism.” What’s more, the state of the world today often feels like everything is awful, all the time — so when you see this kind of bad news via social media, or through news reader apps, or just, y’know, online in general right after you wake up, you’re likely to feel stressed and anxious about it.

There are already loads of thinkpieces and listicles on the internet naming all the reasons you shouldn’t check your phone as soon as you wake up, so I won’t reiterate all those points here; besides, the issue, it turns out, is more complicated than just “it’s bad for you” (remember, blue light wakes you up, too!). Knowing the effects plugging in first thing in the morning, though, can help you figure out what’s best for you — whether that’s starting to store your phone on the other side of the room at night, or whether it’s including a leisurely scroll through your Twitter feed as part of your wake-up routine.

Studies referenced:

Lehrl, S. et al. (2007) Blue light improves cognitive performance. Journal of Neural Transmission, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17245536

West, Katherine E. et al. (2011) Blue light from light-emitting diodes elicits a dose-dependent suppression of melatonin in humans. Journal of Applied Physiology, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17245536

Rahman, Shadab A. et al. (2014) Diurnal spectral sensitivity of the acute alerting effects of light. Sleep, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3900613/

Alkozei, A. et al. (2016) Exposure to blue light increases subsequent functional activation of the prefrontal cortex during performance of a working memory task. Sleep, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4989256/

Tosini, Gianluca, Ian Ferguson, and Kazuo Tsubota. (2016) Effects of blue light on the circadian system and eye physiology. Molecular Vision, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4734149/

Becker, William J., Liuba Belkin, and Sarah Tuskey. (2018) Killing me softly: Electronic communications monitoring and employee and spouse well-being. Academy of Management Proceedings, https://journals.aom.org/doi/10.5465/AMBPP.2018.121

Kushlev, Kostadin and Elizabeth W. Dunn. (2015). Checking email less frequently reduces stress. Computers in Human Behavior, https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0747563214005810

McNaughton-Cassill, Mary E. (2001) The news media and psychological distress. Anxiety, Stress, and Coping. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/10615800108248354#.U6in7ZRdWFk