From reading an e-book in bed to watching something on Netflix, the COVID-19 lockdown has made a lot of people use electronic devices more than before — especially in the evening. While this may have helped people cope with the isolation, it came at a cost, significantly worsening our sleeping habits.
In the countries hit hardest by the virus, the total messaging and the time spent on social networks increased by more than 50%, while the time in video calling increased tenfold. In Italy, for example, during the lockdown, the daily internet traffic volume almost doubled compared to the previous year, with most people spending more time on smartphones and computers than ever before.
A lot of the time, electronic devices daily usage increased to compensate for the limited social interactions, fill up free time, and ward off boredom. Furthermore, working from home has become the norm for millions of workers worldwide, and 40% of those currently working in the European Union began to telework full-time due to the pandemic (with comparable trends in parts of the US).
Previous studies showed a strong relationship between the use of electronic devices after sundown and alterations of sleep patterns, with the usage of electronic devices displacing sleep time the more they are used. Moreover, screen-based activities are related to digital engagement, and the activity type plays a role in the digital media effects on sleep.
Based on this evidence, researchers decided to look at the effects of the larger screen time during the pandemic. They first carried out a survey of 2,123 people during the third and seventh week of Italy’s first national lockdown (March 25th-28th, 2020) and evaluated sleep quality and insomnia symptoms, using the Pittsburgh Sleep Quality Index and the Insomnia Severity Index.
The survey was then followed by a second one with the same group of people in the seventh week of lockdown in Italy (April 21st – 27th, 2020). As well as repeating the sleep questionnaires, the researchers inquired about usage of electronic devices in the two hours before falling asleep, hoping to see an increase in that specific period of the day.
“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. In our opinion, the current period of social distancing added fuel to the fire, Federico Salfi, first author of the study, said in a statement.
Of the participants surveyed, the researchers found that over 90% of them increased their electronic device usage between the first and second surveys. These participants had a decreased sleep quality, increased insomnia symptoms, shorter total sleep times and later bedtime and rising times. They also found an increased prevalence of poor sleepers.
At the same time, about 7% of the participants reported a decrease in evening screen time between the first and second survey, and conversely reported improved sleep quality and fewer symptoms of insomnia. These respondents went to bed consistently earlier after four weeks of home confinement, with a decrease in the prevalence of poor sleepers.
Those who said that their screen time exposure didn’t change during the lockdown had no variation in their sleeping habits. This group had the best sleep quality and fewest insomnia symptoms in the first survey results, which suggests that the lockdown worsened negative sleep conditions for people already suffering from poor sleep quality.
“The evidence of a strong relationship between screen habits and the time course of sleep disturbances during the lockdown period suggests that, now, more than never, raising public awareness about the risks of evening exposure to electronic devices could be crucial to preserve general sleep health,” Michele Ferrara, co-author, said in a statement.