I Tried Setting Screentime Limits On My Social Media Apps And Here’s What I Learned

Some popular apps like TikTok and Instagram offer “digital well-being” settings to keep you from doomscrolling past bedtime. But do they really help you put your phone down and get some sleep?

You may know the feeling. You snuggle in bed after a long day at work, school, or taking care of kiddos and decide to surf through social media “for just five minutes.” Flash-forward 30 minutes — or even hours! — later and you’re still scrolling. It’s so wrong, but it feels so right — even though you know you’ll be a more cranky, sleep-deprived version of yourself in the morning.

It’s a particularly worrisome trend in this digital age given that more than 70 million people in the US already have chronic sleep problems. A lack of adequate sleep can have an impact on your emotional well-being and in the long term is linked to a higher risk of health problems, like high blood pressure, heart disease, and type 2 diabetes.

That’s not to say that using your phone at night will cause these health issues. But in general, if you feel like you are spending too much time on your phone to the detriment of a good night’s sleep or your mental health, there are a few reasons to stop — and some technological features you can use to more easily break the habit.

Why you can’t stop scrolling

Whether it’s social media, doomscrolling the news, streaming shows, or chatting with friends and family, your phone offers a million tempting reasons to procrastinate when it comes to sleep.

Bedtime procrastination is basically going to bed later than you intended, despite having absolutely no good reason to stay up late. It’s a common problem — up to 53% of young adults do it.

On some phones, you can’t even see the time of day onscreen when using an app, so it’s easy to keep scrolling without noticing the time ticking by, sort of like how casinos are designed without clocks or windows to keep people gambling until the wee hours.

“Social media platforms make it very conducive to continuing your engagement, and of course, that's by design to keep you watching. The content is usually amusing or entertaining in a way that doesn't make you want to stop,” said Lauren Hale, a professor of family, population, and preventive medicine at Stony Brook University in New York. “You know, the real world is harder than the fake world. And most of us would, given a choice, choose the path of least resistance.”

All this mental stimulation ultimately “prevents us from winding down and preparing to transition to sleep,” according to Dr. Michael Jaffee, director of the Neurology Sleep Clinic at the University of Florida. “A challenge is that the part of our brain that reinforces behaviors is stimulated by novelty; social media scrolling always promises something new with the next scroll.”

One group of researchers blames FOMO, or the “fear of missing out,” on this nocturnal obsession with social media at night.

It also may be hard to stop scrolling at night during dark times like a pandemic, climate change-related disasters, or war. Constantly checking your phone may give you a sense of control, but often at the expense of more anxiety, depression, and disrupted sleep.

Why too much time on your phone can be bad for your health

Put simply, excessive phone or technology use, no matter the time of day, promotes a sedentary lifestyle, which the World Health Organization has called “one of the more serious yet insufficiently addressed public health problems of our time.” (This was back in 2002 before personal devices with screens became more accessible!)

And it’s not just the fact that screentime means you are moving less; spending too much time on your phone can take the place of other more important things in life, sleep included.

“It’s an opportunity cost when you're on your screen,” said Hale, who is also chair of the board at the National Sleep Foundation. “You might not be studying for school, connecting with family, or sleeping.”

A 2019 study of 106 healthy people mostly in their 20s that was published in the journal Sleep found those who ranked high on the bedtime procrastination scale spent about 61 more minutes per day on their phone before bed compared to those with low bedtime procrastination.

In the study, bedtime procrastinators had more depression, anxiety, and insomnia, and went to bed 50 minutes later, and woke up 46 minutes later, on average, than their procrastination-free counterparts. (All participants answered questionnaires, kept a seven-day sleep diary, and completed time use surveys; however, the researchers noted their sample may not be representative of the general population.)

Hale and a coauthor published a review of 67 studies conducted between 1999 to 2014. They found that screen use was linked to less sleep and delayed bedtimes for teens and children in 90% of the studies they looked at.

Here’s another factor to consider: Digital screens happen to emit blue light, one of the shorter yet higher energy wavelengths on the visible light spectrum. Research shows blue light may suppress the production of the sleep-promoting hormone melatonin, which helps induce sleep.

What tools can you use to limit screentime?

While app developers want to keep you engaged for as long as possible, most of them do offer tools to limit screen use. So I did what I don’t think (anecdotally) many people do — I set up time limits on my social media apps like Facebook, Instagram, and TikTok to help manage my screen use before bed with the hopes of getting more sleep.

TikTok allows users to set daily screen limits of 40, 60, 90, and 120 minutes via its digital well-being section in the app’s settings. When you reach your limit, the screen blacks out and you’re required to enter a four-digit passcode to keep using the app.

I chose 40 minutes because that seemed like more than enough time to mindlessly watch videos about DIY crafts and puppies, but I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Nearly every notification that popped up over the course of a week caught me by surprise; I had no idea I’d already been scrolling for so long. (These were mostly nighttime notifications because I don’t use TikTok much during the day.) To be honest, the interruptions annoyed me, but they did make me check the time, which prompted an internal dialogue about the pros and cons of another five minutes of TikTok versus hitting the hay.

Sometimes it worked and I would surrender my phone to my bedside table, irritated but also appreciative of the sweet relief of darkness on my eyes. But other times I would plug in the passcode, ignoring the tinge of regret that pinched my stomach and knowledge that my future self would be angry — and tired — in the morning. At least TikTok greeted me with a “welcome back” message upon my immediate return?

As another supposed safeguard of my digital well-being, TikTok serves up videos made by top creators “in true TikTok style” to encourage users to take a break and do something IRL, like go for a walk or eat a snack.

But it’s unclear if these videos, which were launched in 2020, actually accomplish what they’re designed to do; a TikTok spokesperson told BuzzFeed News the company doesn’t share data on how many users exit the app when they run into them. The company also wouldn’t tell me how much time must pass before you get one of these videos on your “for you page” (FYP).

Other sites like Instagram and Facebook also offer daily screentime limits you can set through the app.

Here’s how to set screen-use timers on Instagram:

  • Go to your profile, click on the three lines in the top right corner, click “your activity” and then “time spent.”
  • You can set reminders to take breaks from the app in 10-, 20-, and 30-minute increments or set daily time limits that will send reminders to close the app in 30 minutes, 45 minutes, or in one, two, or three hours.

Here’s how to set screen-use timers on Facebook:

  • Go to settings and click on “Your Time on Facebook.”
  • Then select “Manage your Time.” Here you can turn on or schedule “quiet mode” or set “daily time reminders” that are available in five-minute increments.

iPhone and Android owners can go into their phone’s general settings and set timers on any app they choose too, and Google and YouTube also offer controls you can use to monitor digital use.

And as counterintuitive as it sounds, there are apps to control your screentime, including Flipd, Space, Flora, and Offtime. They promise to improve your quality of life by limiting mindless scrolling on your phone.

Tips for healthy sleep and phone use around bedtime

If you believe you're spending too much time on your phone, remember it’s still OK to enjoy screentime, according to Dr. Raj Dasgupta, a pulmonary and sleep medicine specialist at the Keck School of Medicine with the University of Southern California.

With that said, “there is a certain time and place for everything, especially if you’re suffering from chronic insomnia,” said Dasgupta, who emphasized people with sleep disorders may require more support than just relinquishing their phones at night. Still, “if you want to function better during the day while being in a better mood, you're going to have to put the technology away. It’s all about prioritizing sleep.”

Ultimately, how much and how well you sleep is about more than technology use before bed. It’s also about the food you eat, if and when you exercise, and even whether you share a bed with someone.

Personally, I think I’m better off making my bedroom a phone-free environment and using my watch or a traditional alarm clock to wake me up for work. But there are other healthy sleep habits you can follow before quitting nightly screen use cold turkey.

Like Dasgupta, Hale agrees with keeping phones out of the nighttime picture altogether. In her house, no screens are allowed at the dinner table or bedroom; she and her family refrain from using their phones an hour before bedtime and charge them in rooms separate from their sleeping space.

This tip is especially useful for teens. A nationally representative survey of 500 parents and 500 children found that 68% of teens take their devices to bed, including nearly a third who sleep with them (girls do this more than boys). Parents are no better, with 62% of participants saying they keep their devices within bed’s reach, according to the survey by Common Sense, a nonprofit that works to ensure digital well-being for kids.

You’ll also want to refrain from doing anything in bed that’s not sleeping or sexual activity, the Amerian Sleep Association (ASA) says. That means no TV, no reading, no tablets, and no phones. If you do need to use screens at night, the ASA suggests wearing blue light–blocking glasses at least two hours before bed to help improve duration and quality of sleep.

Another healthy sleep habit is to avoid daytime naps, or take them with caution. The ASA says naps can make us less sleepy at night, causing us to have difficulty falling asleep and wake up several times mid-slumber.

Here are some other tips for healthy sleep:

  • Calm down before bed by drinking noncaffeinated tea, taking a low-impact yoga session, meditating, sitting in a hot bath, or listening to music.
  • Avoid alcohol, caffeine, exercise, and cigarettes (or anything else that can keep you awake) right before bedtime.
  • Go to bed and wake up at the same time every day, plus or minus 20 minutes — even on the weekends.
  • Keep pets outside your bedroom, especially cats.
  • Aim to sleep seven to nine hours a night if you can (children should sleep nine to 12 hours; infants should sleep 12 to 16 hours).
  • Bring some fresh air into your bedroom by opening a window, if possible.
  • Consider changing your mattress to one that better suits your body.
  • Keep your bedroom as dark as possible and fill it with calming items like essential oil diffusers and weighted blankets.
  • If you wake up in the middle of the night and stay awake for more than 10 minutes, get out of bed and sit somewhere until you feel sleepy.

“Everyone has some long, hard days, so if you go home and need to wind down, do something for you, that's not wrong. You’re just human,” Dasgupta said of screen use before bed. “The key is that everything should be done in moderation.”

And compromises are critical, he added. If you’re a night owl, try opting for something less engaging than your phone.

Who knows, maybe you’ve got more discipline than me and setting screen limits will actually get you to unglue yourself from late-night technology. At least I can say I tried.

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