The Dark Side of Blue Light

Submitted by: Sam Upton 22/12/2017

There’s a question that’s been asked since the early beginnings of digital communication over 30 years ago. 

That question has been the focus of many debates, discussions, articles and research papers, as well as arguments between billions of parents and their children all over the world. It’s preoccupied governments, academics, companies, organisations and brands, and will continue to do so for a long time to come. The question is simple: Is digital harming our health?

The amount of digital information that’s being created, consumed and shared every day is staggering. In just one minute of an average day, Google receives over 4,000,000 search queries, YouTube users upload 72 hours of new video, Facebook users share 2,460,000 pieces of content, and Apple users download 48,000 apps. By the time you will have finished reading this article, those numbers will have increased further. 

All this content consumption brings with it a host of potential health issues for the user. Anxiety, depression, addiction, isolation, narcissism, all are becoming more and more common, particularly amongst the young. And while the mental strain is certainly troubling, there are also physical issues linked to excessive computer use, such as vision impairment, neck strain, hearing loss and insomnia. While it’s undoubtedly a channel that solves a lot of modern-day problems, it also creates a few. 

With the debate around the consumption of digital media getting louder, Two Sides commissioned a global survey in June 2017, which asked over 10,700 consumers in ten countries about their attitudes to digital and print media, and how worried they are about the amount of time they spend on digital devices. What they found was a clear concern about digital media and a desire to ‘switch off’ and enjoy print more. 

When asked if they are concerned that the overuse of electronic devices could be damaging to their health, 46% of UK consumers agreed, while 47% agreed that they spend too much time on digital devices. While these results are intriguing in that they go against the modern assumption that people prefer digital, it’s when we delve deeper into the demographics that things start to get really interesting. 

Looking at the different age groups for each question, you’d expect the younger demographic to be more at ease with digital, relaxed with their exposure to online media. But 74% of 18-24 year-olds stated that they spend too much time on electronic devices, compared to 48% of 35-44 year-olds and 29% of those 55 and over. Meanwhile, when asked if they were concerned that the overuse of electronic devices could be damaging to their health, 58% of 18-24 year-olds and 67% of 25-34 year-olds agreed. 

With results such as these, it’s clear that people are becoming more and more concerned about the amount of digital content they consume. Social media, plus online video, news, shopping and reading take up a large amount of our day, an amount that’s increasing every year. The most recent IPA Touchpoints data shows that the average UK adult will spend almost eight hours a day consuming media – of that, 2.5 hours is spent on social media and a further 2.1 on the internet. 
There are a number of reasons why people should be concerned about the amount of digital content they consume. The most obvious is that too much screen time at night disrupts sleep patterns. The blue light emitted by tablet, smartphone and e-reader screens suppresses the level of the sleep-inducing hormone melatonin, making sleep more difficult, which can lead to more serious health issues such as obesity and diabetes. 

Harvard University neuroscientist Anne-Marie Chang recently compared the effects of reading on a light-emitting device compared with a printed book, and found a marked difference in the sleep patterns of the two sets of people. “Participants who read on light-emitting devices took longer to fall asleep, had less REM sleep and had higher alertness before bedtime than those people who read printed books,” she explains. “We also found that after an eight-hour sleep episode, those who read on the light-emitting device were sleepier and took longer to wake up.” 

On a more anthropological level, neurologists have discovered that too much time spent online can rewire the human brain to prioritise sensation over thought, stimulating the reward mechanism and the production of dopamine – basically encouraging us to behave like gamblers. This mindset means that people addicted to screens are hard-wired to seek sensations and avoid boredom to such an extent that, a 2014 study for Science magazine found, many people would rather give themselves electric shocks than be left alone with their thoughts for 15 minutes.

But all is not lost. The adverse health effects of too much digital content can be countered by the simple action of reading a print publication. Indeed, it appears that the respondents to the Two Sides survey already know this, with 69% agreeing that it’s important to ‘switch off’ and enjoy printed books and magazines, a figure that doesn’t vary significantly across the age groups. 

So print, which is kinder on our eyes, brains and sleep patterns, could be an effective cure for those suffering from digital overload.

To download the global report, as well as the Key Findings from the UK survey, go to www.twosides.info/Survey2017