This Is the #1 Worst Habit for Sleep, According to Sleep Experts

And how to spend your evening instead.

If you’re one of the 50 to 70 million Americans who have trouble sleeping, you know exactly how frustrating it is to spend your night tossing and turning instead of in deep, blissful REM sleep. Chances are, you’ve tried it all: melatonin, "Sleepytime" tea, reciting the alphabet backward…

Unfortunately, willing yourself to sleep doesn’t really work. What plays an important role, however, are daily habits. Diet, exercise, stress management, how we work, and how we spend our free time all contribute to how well we sleep (or not sleep). Of all the habits people tend to engage in, there’s one that scientific studies have repeatedly shown is the worst for sleep: late night screen time.

This probably isn’t new information to you. You’ve likely heard that it isn’t great to be on your computer or phone before bed—or to watch TV before bed. But putting the advice into practice isn’t so straightforward. What if your phone or tablet has a blue light filter? Can you use it before bed then? And if you can’t use any screens in the evening, what the heck are you supposed to be doing instead? Here, one of the leading sleep physicians answers these questions and more.

Related: Why You Should Try a 'Coffee Nap'—and Other Surprising Tips on How to Sleep Better

Why Is Late Night Screen Time the Worst Habit for Sleep?

Dr. Brandon R. Peters, MD, FAASM, is a sleep physician at Virginia Mason Medical Center, author of the book Sleep Through Insomnia, guest lecturer at Stanford University, fellow with the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, and a diplomate for the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology. He says that one major reason why doing things such as being on social media, replying to work emails, or watching an engaging show or movie before bed can lead to trouble sleeping is that it elicits an emotional response. “If you feel upset, annoyed or jealous, this is not likely to ease the transition to sleep,” he explains.

You may think that lying in bed with your phone and scrolling social media is pretty mindless. But to Dr. Peters’ point, there’s a good chance that what you’re looking at is making you feel a certain way (even more so if you follow news outlets on social media and distressing headlines come up in your feed). Similarly, checking your work email before you hit the hay isn’t exactly going to prime your mind for sleep either. (Cue late night spiraling and to-do list dread.)

Related: Can't Sleep? Sleep Experts Have 16 Ideas To Help You Finally Catch Some Zzzs.

Another reason why Dr. Peters says that using social media before bed can get in the way of sleep is because of its addictive nature. “Many activities trigger pleasure, leading to persistent engagement,” he says. In fact, TikTok, in particular, is so addictive that the app recently created a time limit for users under 18, allowing them to scroll for only one hour a day. “On average, adults need seven to nine hours of sleep to feel rested. If at the end of the day, someone hops on a screen to unwind, and this activity becomes too prolonged, this may cut into their overnight sleep opportunity,” Dr. Peters says.

Streaming services like Netflix and Hulu are designed to keep you hooked too. That’s why it’s so easy to watch multiple episodes of a show before bed when you swore to yourself you’d only watch one.

But what if your device has a blue light filter? Does that give you a free pass to engage in all the evening screen time you want? According to Dr. Peters, unfortunately not. While he says that having a blue light filter can prevent the light itself from disrupting sleep, the content that’s consumed can still get in the way of sleep for all of the previously explained reasons.

Related: Sleep Experts Swear By This One Bedtime Trick for a Good Night's Rest

How To Spend Your Evening Instead

In general, Dr. Peters recommends cutting screen time off two hours before going to bed if you believe it’s getting in the way of your sleep. Wondering what the heck you’re supposed to do instead? According to Dr. Peters, something boring. (Yep, doctor’s orders.) “As a general rule, it is best to select activities that are somewhat boring prior to sleep onset. In the buffet of life, you want oatmeal!” he says. Some ideas include listening to calming music or nature sounds, using the evening as a time for prayer or meditation, light stretching, or reading a print magazine or book.

Dr. Peters says that having an evening routine and going to bed at the same time every night can help too. “A consistent bedtime routine can mentally prepare oneself for sleep. As the sequence unfolds, it leads to a conditioned response with the natural anticipation that sleep approaches,” he says.

If you’re used to going on your phone right before bed, Dr. Peters recommends keeping it in the kitchen to avoid the temptation to use it at night. This may mean having to buy an alarm clock if you’re used to using the alarm on your phone.

Still not getting any sleep? Consider seeing a sleep doctor to find out if you have an underlying health condition that may be the reason why. Dr. Peters also recommends trying cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia (CBTI). “CBTI is the first-line treatment for chronic insomnia. It can be accessed through a board-certified sleep specialist or through various online programs and self-guided books,” he says.

It bears repeating that many factors contribute to sleep. But if you aren’t getting as much sleep as you want and you haven’t given screen-free evenings a try, consider this your sign to start. Boredom just might be the best sleep aid of all. 

Next up, find out exactly why it's so important to get good sleep anyway.