vulture hacks

4 Ways to Stream and Read on Your Phone at Night Without Wrecking Your Sleep

Photo-Illustration: Vulture and Photo by Getty

This week we’re providing a series of Vulture Hacks: expert advice, gear guides, and recommendations to help you maximize your entertainment experience.

You’ve likely heard that you shouldn’t use your phones (or tablets or laptops or anything else remotely fun) before bed, since staring at screens at night can and does mess up your sleep. The problem, of course, is that those devices are brimming with exactly the sort of entertainment you want to consume before bed, and no one wants to let a little science get in the way of that. Fortunately, it’s totally possible to binge-watch before bed in such a way that minimally affects your sleep.

First, it helps to understand how screens keep us awake. It involves cells in our eyes known as “intrinsically photosensitive Retinal Ganglion cells,” which are thought to serve as daylight detectors charged with keeping our circadian rhythms on track. It’s their job to scan the world for light and use that information to tell our brains whether it’s daylight out and we should be awake, or nighttime and we should be asleep.

In the days before electric lights and shining screens, this was an easy enough process. But in the modern phone-filled world, ubiquitous screens can trick our brains into thinking it’s daytime when it’s not — and possibly causing a cascade of other health issues. “I’ve been suggesting for the past few years that perhaps the twin pandemics of obesity and depression may be related to exposure to bright light at night,” says Randy Nelson, chairman of the neuroscience department at the Ohio State University’s Wexner Medical Center. “As cultures electrify their nights, you see increases in these rates.”

But those eye cells have a quirk that we can use to our advantage: They don’t treat all types of light the same. The cells largely ignore red light, but are extremely sensitive to the short wavelengths of blue light. The goal for late-night device users, then, is to keep blue light away from your eyes — and predictably, there are a number of ways to do so. Here are the four easiest methods.

The best blue-filtering software on the market is a free plug-in called f.lux. It’s easy to use and can be configured to slowly turn down the blues as the sun sets, allowing you to ease into a reddish-tinted screen so slowly you might not even notice it. It is available for Windows, Mac, and Linux. There are also versions available for iOS and Android, but these require a bit of technical prowess to install, since they aren’t distributed in the primary app stores for either platform. Download f.lux

Also of note: f.lux’s site keeps a running tab on specifically how much blue light different devices give off, and how much various anti-blue products actually filter from your vision. Since new products and apps are constantly coming out in this space, it may not be a bad place to a check before purchasing.

Built-In Functions
Your phone or tablet may already offer an anti-blue feature that you didn’t even realize was available. There’s been a big movement over the past year or so for the tech giants to build such capabilities directly into their products. As of earlier this year, Apple’s iOS offers a feature called Night Shift that does just this — to turn it on, swipe up from the bottom of the screen to reveal the settings-filled Control Bar. In the middle will be an icon that looks like a moon or sun. Tap that. Amazon has a similar feature for its line of Fire tablets called Blue Shade.

Blue-blocking glasses have the benefit of being able to block blue light from all sources, including the incidental lights around your house that have nothing to do with your phone or computer. Models range from the basic and inexpensive, such as this $9 Uvex Skyper model, to more style-centric offerings like the gamer-oriented Gunnar glasses. Will you look ridiculous wearing orange-hued glasses? A little. But if you’re at home and it’s nighttime, hopefully you can get over such vanity.

Onscreen Filters
There are various blue-filtering covers that get applied right over your screens. Mobile-device models include the RetinaShield Screen Protector, while desktop-monitor options include the Accurate Films Blue Light Screen Protector. I personally prefer glasses or software-based solutions, since most people apply their screen filters and then forget about them, and there are times when you want to let blue light through.

Whichever approach you choose, remember: Blue light isn’t always bad. There are times when you want to be awake and alert, and there’s a wide body of literature that points to blue light as a powerful way to keep your brain cranking at peak performance. A June 2016 paper published in the journal Sleep suggests that exposure to such light prior to taking on an important task can boost performance and reaction time. This is the premise behind seasonal-affective-disorder desk lights, which use LEDs to blast us with blue and white light. In other words: The best way to fight the winter blues might be to literally bask in blue. Just not before bed.

How to Use a Phone at Night and Still Get Sleep