Is Facebook Making You Sick?

Chances are you’re reading this article on your laptop or a mobile device. Hopefully you’re not reading it late at night, because if you are, it may be making you sick.  That’s because the artificial light from computer and smart phone screens is interfering with our ability to sleep properly. And when we don’t sleep well, or enough, we fail to benefit from our body’s natural restorative abilities.

But that’s only one piece of the bad news relating to electronic gadgets and our health. For all it’s given us, modern technology also is hurting our physical and emotional health, and changing behaviors in adults and children in ways that will have far-reaching, yet still undetermined consequences.

Melatonin is a hormone that regulates sleep and wakefulness in humans and animals. It is produced in darkness. Researchers have determined that the blue light from our electronic devices affects melatonin production and melanopsin stimulation, which throws off our circadian rhythms, our internal body clock. This interrupts or prevents deep, restorative sleep, causing an increase in stress and depressive symptoms.

Research shows that interactive technologies such as video games, cell phones and the Internet might affect the brain differently than those which are “passively received,” such as TV and music. That’s even more meaningful when it comes to our kids.

Children’s brains are much more sensitive to electronics use than most of us realize. In fact, contrary to popular belief, it doesn’t take much electronic stimulation to throw a sensitive and still-developing brain off track. Many parents mistakenly believe that interactive screen-time – such as the Internet or social media use, texting, emailing, and gaming — isn’t harmful, especially compared to passive screen time like watching TV. In fact, interactive screen time is more likely to cause sleep, mood, and cognitive issues, because of hyper-arousal and compulsive use.

Recent statistics show that 63 percent of American Facebook users log on to the site daily, while 40 percent of users log on multiple times a day. If you or your kids are spending a lot of time in chat rooms and on social-networking sites, a number of studies now suggest that this can be associated with depression, particularly in teens and preteens.

Internet addicts may struggle with real-life human interaction and a lack of companionship, and they may have an unrealistic view of the world. Some experts even call it “Facebook depression.” In a 2010 study, researchers found that many people ages 16 to 51 spent an inordinate amount of time online, and that they had a higher rate of moderate to severe depression. However, the researchers noted that it is not clear if Internet overuse leads to depression or if depressed people are more likely to use the Internet.

We all have our own reasons for using social media, but one of the main reasons we use it is for self-distraction and boredom relief. In essence, social media delivers reinforcement every time a person logs on. It may seem harmless to knock out a few emails before bed or unwind with a favorite movie, but by keeping our mind engaged, technology can trick our brain into thinking that it needs to stay awake. When surfing the web, seeing something exciting on Facebook, or reading a negative email, those experiences can make it hard to relax and settle into slumber. After spending an entire day surrounded by technology, our minds need time to unwind.

Why we need technology down time

Research into the use of technology produced other startling results, including sleep disorders and an increase in depressive symptoms from heavy cell phone use or the regular use of computers at night. Researchers have established that screen time:

  • Disrupts sleep and de-synchronizes the body clock. Just minutes of screen stimulation can delay melatonin release by several hours and desynchronize our body clock. Once the body clock is disrupted, all sorts of other unhealthy reactions occur, such as hormone imbalance and brain inflammation. Plus, high arousal doesn’t permit deep sleep, and deep sleep is how we heal.
  • Desensitizes the brain’s reward system. Many children are “hooked” on electronics. In fact, gaming releases so much dopamine — the “feel-good” chemical — that on a brain scan it looks the same as cocaine But when reward pathways are overused, they become less sensitive, and more and more stimulation is needed to experience pleasure. Meanwhile, dopamine is also critical for focus and motivation, so even small changes in dopamine sensitivity can wreak havoc on how well a child feels and functions.
  • Produces “light-at-night.” Light-at-night from electronics has been linked to depression and even suicide risk in numerous studies. Animal studies show that exposure to screen-based light before or during sleep causes depression, even when the animal isn’t looking at the screen. Sometimes parents are reluctant to restrict electronics use in a child’s bedroom because they worry the child will get upset — but to the contrary, removing light-at-night is protective.
  • Induces stress reactions. Both acute stress (fight-or-flight) and chronic stress produce changes in brain chemistry and hormones that can increase irritability. Cortisol, the chronic stress hormone, seems to be both a cause and an effect of depression — creating a vicious cycle. Additionally, both hyper-arousal and addiction pathways suppress the brain’s frontal lobe, the area where mood regulation actually takes place.
  • Fractures attention, and depletes mental reserves. Experts say that what’s often behind explosive and aggressive behavior is poor focus. When attention suffers, so does the ability to process one’s internal and external environment, so little demands become big ones. By depleting mental energy with high visual and cognitive input, screen time contributes to low reserves. One way to temporarily “boost” depleted reserves is to become angry, so meltdowns actually become a coping mechanism.
  • Reduces physical activity levels and exposure to “green time.” Research shows that time outdoors, especially interacting with nature, can restore attention, lower stress, and reduce aggression. So time spent with electronics reduces exposure to natural mood enhancers, as well as to chemicals which also keep us alert, and wake us up.

Most Americans admit to using electronics a few nights a week within an hour before bedtime. But to make sure technology isn’t harming your slumber, give yourself at least 30 minutes of gadget-free and TV–free transition time before hitting the hay. In fact, it’s even better if you can make your bedroom a technology-free zone. And just because you’re not using your cell phone before bed doesn’t mean that it can’t harm your sleep: Keeping a mobile within reach can still disturb slumber, thanks to the chimes of late-night texts, posts, emails, calls, or calendar reminders.

This is a growing and serious public health hazard that isn’t being adequately acknowledged and addressed by both the medical community and technology industries. About 72 percent of children ages six to 17 sleep with at least one electronic device in their bedroom, which leads to getting less sleep on school nights compared with other kids. The difference adds up to almost an hour per night, and the restful quality of their sleep is negatively affected too. To ensure a better night’s rest, parents should limit their kids’ technology use in the bedroom, and can be solid role models and improve their own health by doing the same.


Be sure to check out the CBIA Healthy Connections wellness program at your company’s next renewal. It’s free as part of your participation in CBIA Health Connections!