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Screens, Sleep Hygiene, and Mental Health: Finding Balance in the Digital Age

by Cynthia Hurtado-Müller

Iinvite you, for a moment, to envision your nights as a university student: you, your learning materials, and the hum of the digital landscape. Your routine unfolds under the soft glow of the virtual assignments you must hand in, the theoretical content you must prepare for your exams, and the text messages and e-mails, Internet searches, and videos that interrupt the evening. It’s your comfort zone and your escape from reality. But what if this nocturnal digital date is more than just a study session? What if I told you that this habit plays a fundamental role in your mental health?

Screens (TVs, computers, phones/tablets, and video games) have become ubiquitous throughout our daily functions and obligations, and for this very reason, they have become a natural part of student and work life. If we add the time we spend playing video games, watching movies and television programs, and using social networks, it is evident that we spend many hours in front of a screen. I suspect that we spend more time using them than we think.

At the same time, it is no secret that many nations are experiencing major mental health crises, especially as the result of the COVID-19 pandemic.1 It shouldn’t come as a surprise that cases of anxiety, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and paranoia have increased—and will likely continue to do so—due to the characteristics of the world in which we live. According to the latest research,2 some of the most vulnerable groups in this regard are adolescents and university students.

Over the past few years, college counseling centers have reported a steady increase in the number of students with psychiatric illnesses. Rates of depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and suicidal behavior are reaching levels that have never been seen before.3

But can we separate physical health from mental, emotional, and even spiritual health? I invite you to explore what the experts say.

The American College Health Association (ACHA) conducted a mental-health survey of 54,202 undergraduate students throughout the United States in Spring 2022.4 The results of this survey revealed that 76.6 percent of respondents were experiencing moderate to severe psychological distress, 29.5 percent met the criteria for suicidal ideation, 12 percent had intentionally harmed themselves in the past year, and 2.9 percent had attempted suicide in the past year.

The web-based Healthy Minds, one of the world’s most renowned ongoing studies of mental health in university students worldwide, analyzed 96,000 students from 133 campuses across the United States during the 2021–2022 academic year. The results of this survey revealed that 44 percent of students reported symptoms of major or moderate depression, 38 percent had anxiety disorders, and 15 percent had seriously thought about suicide in the past year—the highest rates recorded in the history of the survey.5

In their 2022 joint survey, “Stressed Out and Stopping Out: The Mental Health Crisis in Higher Education,” Gallup, a well-known analytics company, and the Lumina Foundation, an independent, private organization focused on creating accessible opportunities for postsecondary learning, found that 48 percent of bachelor’s students reported “frequently” experiencing emotional stress, and 36 percent of bachelor’s students and 44 percent of associate degree students had considered dropping out in the past six months due to emotional stress and the need to prioritize personal mental health.6

Given the urgency revealed by these studies, consider some research that examines the habits associated with sleep and the time students spend in front of various screens in connection with mental health.

A 2015–2017 study that surveyed 7,626 American college students revealed that 27 percent described their sleep quality as poor, 36 percent reported obtaining less than seven hours of sleep per night, and 43 percent reported that it took >30 minutes to fall asleep at least once per week.7 A study published in 2019 in the journal NPJ Science of Learning noted that, on average, college students tend to go to bed at 2 a.m. and wake up at 9 a.m.8 Do you see yourself reflected in these results?

Interestingly, the results of studies in other countries reveal similar results as those focusing on university students living in the United States. In a research study published in 2016 that surveyed 1,040 students from eight medical schools in Peru, it was found that 77.69 percent of those surveyed suffered from sleeping problems and that there was a connection between poor sleep quality, stress, and anxiety.9 Another study, on Norwegian medical students visiting their primary physician, concluded that their prevalence of chronic insomnia was 48.3 percent, while 46.9 percent reported chronic sleep problems of more than three months’ duration, and 17.8 percent reported hypnotic use.10

Indiscriminate use of and exposure to screens has been related to poor sleep and, in turn, has been associated with a greater vulnerability to mood disorders and a decline in academic performance. But what does one thing have to do with the other? How do screens affect the functioning of our brain and, therefore, our ability to rest and enhance our mental health? To answer that question, we need to understand the organ—my favorite one—that coordinates and supervises each of the functions of your body: the human brain.

In 1 Corinthians 6:19, the apostle Paul asked: “Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own” (NIV).11 Taking this question into account, I want you to think about that temple and imagine that the main office or headquarters of that structure is your brain. If that office is not well managed—if it is not organized and clean—it won’t work properly, and the rest of the temple won’t work well either. Simply put, everything that happens in your brain affects the functioning of the rest of your body: how you feel, how cold or hot you are, your ability to memorize a text, or how well you can pay attention Therefore, the key to experiencing good in class.12 mental health is knowing how your brain works and understanding what it needs to function optimally. Just as a high-performance car requires quality fuel to run smoothly, our brains require proper nourishment and care. Daily exercise, a balanced diet rich in essential nutrients, fostering healthy relationships with others, and getting adequate sleep will contribute to fueling the brain and nurturing mental well-being. By prioritizing these factors, individuals can cultivate a resilient mind and experience greater overall mental health and happiness.

First, if you are under 28 years old: Congratulations! Your brain is still in the process of developing.13 Contrary to what was thought years ago, before we had the technology we have now, the human brain does not finish developing at 18 or 21 years old. Today, we know that the neurodevelopment process is a complex progression that ends between the ages of 27 and 28. We have also learned that while you are experiencing this process, your brain will be extremely permeable to each of the stimuli it registers.

This means that everything you do—the kind of friends with which you surround yourself, what you eat and drink, what you read or watch on Netflix or YouTube, the podcasts you listen to, the TikTok accounts you follow, the number of hours you sleep, and when you obtain that sleep—create the stimuli that will have a long-term effect on your brain.14

Most people agree that few things feel better for the body and mind than getting a good night’s rest. This is because sleep is essential for physical and mental health. Sleep is closely related to the circadian rhythm, which is one of the four biological cycles in the body. It is responsible for telling the body when to sleep, wake up, and eat, based on cycles of light and darkness. Almost all living organisms have circadian rhythms: plants, animals, and even microorganisms!15

Located in the suprachiasmatic nucleus of the hypothalamus (which is found the middle of your brain), the clock that maintains the circadian rhythm receives lighting signals from the retina in the eye and sends that information to various parts of the brain. One important area that receives these signals is the pineal gland, which releases melatonin (the sleep hormone). These signals vary throughout the day, which means that the circadian rhythm usually follows the cycle of the sun. At night, our central nervous system receives signals that our environment is dark. This sends a message to the brain that prompts it to release melatonin, which makes us sleepy. The opposite occurs during the day because light exposure suppresses melatonin production.16

Do you have trouble sleeping, or wake up feeling tired even after you sleep? This almost certainly has to do with your sleep hygiene. When you hear the word hygiene, the first thing that comes to mind may be oral hygiene (brushing and flossing your teeth) or personal hygiene (showering, grooming, etc.). Sleep hygiene, although different, is just as important as those other daily practices. Sleep hygiene is another way of describing sleep habits—that is, the conditions that you choose to enhance your sleep. When good habits are practiced on a consistent basis, you fall asleep more quickly, stay asleep for longer, and experience deeper and more restful sleep.17 Because sleep plays such a crucial role in the functioning of human beings, the lack of proper sleep hygiene can lead to a series of consequences that affect your behavior, memory, emotional management, and ability to learn when you are awake. These consequences may include lack of attention, irritability, hyperactivity or hypoactivity, poor impulse control, memory impairment, mood swings, and in extreme cases, hallucinations.18

What can you do to sleep better and, consequentially, count on having your brain work better? Here are some tips to improve your health and cognitive functions:

  1. Remember that your sleep cycle begins in the morning hours.Encourage yourself to wake up early and get some sun for 15 to 20 minutes with no sunscreen or sunglasses (avoid looking directly at the sun), and again in the afternoon, wearing as little covering as possible (shorts and a T-shirt, for instance). This will “reset” your nervous system, boost your body’s production of vitamin D, and help ensure that you generate adequate levels of melatonin at the correct time.19
  2. Establish a sleep schedule:Try to go to bed and wake up at the same time every day, even on weekends. This will help your biological clock become more regular and will improve the quality of your rest.
  3. Create an atmosphere conducive to sleep: Ensure that your bedroom is completely dark (if possible, eliminate even power lights from devices, TVs, and extension cords), has good ventilation (even during the winter), and is between 60 to 68 degrees Fahrenheit (15.6 to 20 degrees Celsius).20
  4. Limit exposure to electronic devices for at least two to three hours before bedtime:The blue light emitted by cell phones, tablets, and computers can interfere with the production of melatonin, even when you use a filter for this type of light.21
  5. Limit naps and keep them short: If you feel the need to take a nap, limit it to about 20 to 30 minutes. Long naps, or those taken late in the day, can interfere with nighttime sleep and do not replace the hours missed during the night.
  6. Remember that the quality of your rest is as important as the number of hours you sleep:For young adults and adults, the National Sleep Foundation recommends between seven and nine hours of sleep daily,22 ideally starting between 10 and 11 p.m.23 Organize your week so that you can turn the lights down by 10 p.m., and go to bed at a reasonable time in order to give your brain (and your body) the rest it needs.24

Now you know the reality of mental health, rest, and screen use. You know the impact that a lack of good sleep hygiene has on your brain, and you are informed about the recommendations made by those who study the brain. A new challenge has been posed to you: Starting today, you can make choices about your mental health based on researched evidence, not on personal opinions or habits.

And remember, if at some point you feel you can’t do it—that you don’t have the motivation or willpower to start changing your habits—remember this promise in God’s Word: “For the Spirit God gave us does not make us timid, but gives us power, love and self-discipline” (2 Timothy 1:7).

Cynthia Hurtado-Müller (Master’s degree in neuropsychology, University of Alcalá, Spain) is a graduate-level instructor at several Latin American universities, consultant in applied neurosciences, and founder of the Neurofy platform. E-mail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Recommended Citation

Cynthia Hurtado-Müller, "Screens, Sleep Hygiene, and Mental Health: Finding Balance in the Digital Age," Dialogue 36:1 (2024): 5-9


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