After a long day at work, do you switch on your PlayStation or Xbox to unwind? Or do you have a teen who plays games on their computer after school? Odds are, you are someone you know is a gamer. Estimates suggest there are over 2.8 billion gamers in the world, with over 150 million in the U.S. In fact, video games are considered one of the largest entertainment industries, worth roughly $22 billion in the U.S. alone.
Video games can be a great way to disconnect, have fun with friends, and may even benefit critical thinking skills. However, although this popular pastime may seem like harmless fun, you could put yourself at risk for a sleep disorder.
When you lay down on your buckwheat pillow at night, and find yourself tossing and turning, it could be because of your gaming. Several studies have examined the effects of video games on the mind and body, and plenty of research has revealed that gamers are prone to sleep disorders.
Video Games Vs. Sleep
You need sleep, and you need a good amount of it. Although there is some debate on the exact number of hours you need, sleep experts and doctors agree that you need at least 7 hours of quality sleep to function properly. Unfortunately, several activities can disrupt the quantity and quality of sleep you get. For example, drinking coffee late in the day or scrolling on your phone in bed can make it difficult to fall asleep.
Video games are another known sleep disrupter, yet most gamers play at night before bed. Many in the gaming community play through the night with late bedtimes, sleeping in until late morning or the afternoon. This may work for teenagers who are don’t have to get up for work in the morning, but it can result in health issues and negatively affect school performance. Although played by people of all ages, teenagers are the biggest consumers of video games.
A 2019 study looked at the effect video games had on teenagers' sleep. The study observed an individual for ten consecutive nights. For the first five nights, the teenager played video games for one hour before going to bed, and for the following five nights, the teenager meditated before bed. It is easy to predict that meditation would be more beneficial for falling asleep, but the surprising result was how quickly the sleep benefits could be achieved by switching up their nighttime activity.
Immediately after substituting video games with meditation, the individual had a better sleep.
Not only did they fall asleep faster, but they had more restorative sleep through the night. When playing videos games before bed, you will have a shorter amount of REM sleep which is vital for brain function. The results of this study were similar to those observed in a more extensive study of 16 male gamers. In this study, the researchers found that after playing video games at night, the individuals had poorer attention spans and focus the following day.
Video games can also disrupt the sleep quality in younger children. The well-known journal Pediatrics published a study that revealed that children who played videos games had less deep, restorative sleep, and it took them longer to fall sleep. Parents may assume that playing video games before bed is the same as watching TV; however, this is not true. The study found that TV watching didn’t trigger the same disruptions in sleep as playing video games due to the lack of interaction involved in TV watching. The same applies to watching a movie. In addition, a study published in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine compared pre-bedtime DVD watching to playing video games and found that only video games reduced sleep quality.
Data has shown that the amount of time a person plays video games before bed makes a difference. The more time you spend playing video games, the more challenging it will be to fall asleep on your buckwheat pillow. Consequently, these sleep disturbances can turn into a sleep disorder when this becomes a nightly activity for an extended period.
At Flinders University in Australia, a study looked at the sleep of 17 teenagers who played either 50 minutes or 150 minutes of violent video games before bed. Those who played for 150 minutes took an average of 39 minutes to fall asleep, and they woke up repeatedly through the night, reducing their sleep by about 27 minutes. Alternatively, those who played for 50 minutes saw little disruption in sleep.
There are several reasons why video games can disrupt sleep. It is often not just one reason alone but a combination that can trigger sleep disorders and disturbances. One of the most apparent reasons is exposure to blue light. Blue light is emitted by many electronic devices like computer screens, televisions, and phones. When you are close to blue light, your body interprets it as daylight, suppressing melatonin. Melatonin is a hormone that helps regulate circadian rhythm and is essential for sleep.
In addition to suppressing melatonin, video games are often very stimulating. The incredible sound effects and soundtracks video games are known for are considered auditory microarousals. Your brain hears these difference sounds and peaks your attention, keeping you on alert. Many games also have surprises hidden around castle walls or on the battlefield. Pair this with solid visual effects, and you’ll be wired. Fortunately, there are certain things you can do to win the battle of video games vs. sleep.
How to Play Video Games and Sleep Better
There are a few things you can do to help you fall asleep, and it doesn’t involve cutting out video games altogether. Dr. Nitun Verma, MD, and spokesperson for the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, told Kotaku, “Being a sleep doctor, my first impulse is, “Hey, don’t play video games. Turn it off. Pick up a book, but I just fell asleep playing a video game two weeks ago”. Dr. Virma says there are ways you can still enjoy an evening round of video games without jeopardizing sleep quality. Follow these tips, and you’ll be sleeping soundly on your buckwheat pillow in no time.
- Limit blue light.Some computer screens and phones can limit blue light exposure. It is often referred to as nighttime or sleep mode and changes the light, so it doesn’t have the same effect. When you are playing video games later in the day, turn these settings on. If you don’t have these settings, turn the brightness down and play on a smaller screen. This will also work on devices like Nintendo Switch.
- Avoid playing right before bed.If you can, allow yourself at least an hour before bedtime without video games. This will give your brain time to decompress and shake off the stimulation received by playing.
- Turn off sound.As mentioned earlier, the sound effects are considered microarousals and will keep your brain alert, making it harder to fall asleep. If the game doesn’t require sound, it is best to mute it and if it is needed, put it on the lowest volume as possible.
- Try a natural sleep aid.Using a natural sleep aid or drinking a sleep tea before bed will help you fall asleep. As studies have shown, sleep latency issues are common with video games. However, you can counteract this when you take a natural sleep aid or drink a sleep tea.
- Limit caffeine and sugar.It may become habitual to grab a soda and a bowl of chips to snack on as you play, but this nighttime snack routine can disrupt sleep. Caffeine and sugar will make it challenging to sleep and stay asleep, so stick to caffeine-free beverages and light, sugar-free snacks in the evening.
- Play a familiar game.When you play a new game versus an old, familiar game, you will be more aroused. According to Verma, a new game when everything is a surprise will keep you awake. So play new games earlier in the day and when you need a way to unwind, play a familiar game where there aren’t any surprises.
- Reduce the time you play. A three-hour gaming session is much more likely to disrupt your sleep than if you were to play for under an hour. Therefore, when playing video games in the evening, you should limit the amount of time you play to about 50 minutes of game time.
When you follow these tips, playing video games may even help you fall asleep! As an avid gamer, playing video games is likely familiar to you and could be relaxing. If this is the case, playing a video game while following the tips listed above could help you fall asleep. Verma recommends finding an old video game that can be used to help you all asleep.
Prolonged sleep disturbances can cause serious health consequences. If you are an avid gamer and find you aren’t getting enough sleep night after night, try taking a break and replace your gaming with a more relaxing activity like meditation or slow yoga. Though video games are entertaining, sleep must always be a priority – your health and wellness depend on it!