Calm down, our Kindles aren’t going to kill us

Sure, Christmas parties can be fun. But the introverted book-loving types among us know the best thing about this time of year is having the chance to go to bed early, crank the electric blanket up to 11, sip a hot chocolate, and cut a swathe through all the books that’ve piled up on our e-readers over the last few months. But STOP. Don’t press the ‘on’ switch. Pick up a paperback instead, because our technology is evil and about to kill us. At least, that’s the message I picked up from today’s media coverage of research that’s actually fairly innocuous.

This week, a lot of publications reported on research from Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston showing that it’s harder to get to sleep after reading on a backlit device than after reading an old-fashioned hard copy. A sleep lab study involving twelve people who first read from a paperback before bed and then from an iPad showed a link between reading from a backlit device and less restful sleep (plus next day fatigue).

This doesn’t exactly seem like ground-breaking news – scientists and doctors have been warning us for years that using a laptop or watching TV right before bed makes it harder to nod off, that’s why so many sleep experts recommend not looking at a screen at least an hour before bed. But it’s worth the reminder that this includes e-readers, too, especially for those of us with insomniac (and readaholic) tendencies.

What seems unnecessary and hyperbolic is the BBC’s approach, which runs the risk of making any not-so-tech-savvy people who get an e-reader for Christmas think they’d be better off throwing it out with the wrapping paper for their own safety. Not only is their headline a panic-inducing ‘E-books ‘damage sleep and health,’ doctors warn’ (not actually what doctors warn at all), the body of the article quotes one of the study’s researchers drawing a link between poor sleep and life-threatening illness. Professor Charles Czeisler said, ‘Sleep deficiency has been shown to increase the risk of cardiovascular disease, metabolic diseases like obesity and diabetes, and cancer.’

One minute you’re reading a couple of chapters of Yes, Please, the next you need a biopsy? No thank you. Could we maybe all calm down for a minute? Rather than predicting future health concerns (let’s save the ‘obesity’s not actually an illness’ debate for another day), why not just spell out what actually happens? These devices emit blue light, part of the visible spectrum that suppresses melatonin, which is the hormone that lets us know when it’s time to sleep and wake up.

It’s a bummer, but hardly a disaster given that it’s possible to buy glasses and goggles to block blue light, plus there are apps like Flux (for iOS, PC, and Mac) or Twilight (for Android) which are designed to ensure your screen use doesn’t affect your sleep cycle. (If you’re a Kindle Fire user, you can switch to the Kindle app on your computer or one of these other devices when you read before bed – you won’t even lose your place.)

What’s more, it’s the devices, not the books themselves, that are the problem. Why so Daily Mail, BBC? I get that it’s hard for everyone but BuzzFeed to win online traffic and that scare stories are guaranteed eyeball-grabbers (not literally, ew) but it’s more important that you actually report the news, not just repeat what scientists tell you with a little spin for good measure. Especially considering how few people actually read beyond the headlines for the real story before becoming enraged/descending into panic. The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences can’t be accused of being snappy with their ‘Evening use of light-emitting eReaders negatively affects sleep, circadian timing, and next-morning alertness’, but at least it’s accurate.

While the BBC’s coverage is undeniably over-the-top, the researchers are partly to blame, as the quote from our man in Boston illustrates. If scientists gave news organisations quotes that said, ‘Yep, we’ve found a correlation between reading on a backlit device before bed and poor quality sleep’ it wouldn’t get half as much attention as ‘OMG, e-books = cancer!’ The media picking up on the sensationalism of a story only makes scientists feel that’s how they have to present their results, and studies that are interesting but not life-changing (or life-threatening) are suddenly inflated out of all proportion. That’s how you end up with news reports claiming that marijuana causes cancer (no, it’s smoking that’s the problem) or e-books are bad for your health.

The sensationalism is irresponsible in both cases, but it’s especially concerning coming from the BBC, considering we’re paying them to educate, not exaggerate.

Diane Shipley