Do I need to worry about sleeping with my phone next to my bed?

Photo illustration of a woman sleeping on a bed resembling an iPhone
Sleeping next to your phone can have an impact on your health. (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Getty Images)

We know that there can be impacts on your mental health if you scroll through your phone too much during the day. But could where you lay your phone to rest at night affect your health too?

There’s certainly chatter about how cellphones affect our health in general, especially when it comes to the potentially harmful effects of radiation. A July 2023 study published in the journal Cancers found a positive if weak correlation between death from brain cancer and mobile phone usage. Shabbir Syed Abdul, co-author of the study, told VeryWell Health that “it is crucial to recognize that definitive conclusions cannot be made at this point.”

Should we be worried about radiation when sleeping by a phone?

Dr. Neha Narula, a clinical assistant professor of medicine at Stanford University, agrees that radiation isn’t something you should worry about when it comes to your phone, even if you are sleeping with your phone next to your bed — and head.

“At this time, there's actually no evidence that supports that the radiation that is emitted from smartphones or tablets affects our health long-term,” Narula tells Yahoo Life, pointing out that the type of radiation emitted from cellphones and tablets is different from, say, the kind we see from X-rays, which we know can cause DNA damage.

“The radiation that comes off of cellphones is what we call ‘nonionizing,’” she says. “This type of radiation, which we see emitted from microwaves and smartphones and things like that, we have no concrete evidence at this time that shows that there are long-term effects or harmful effects on our health.” Of course, we have no concrete evidence that it is not harmful, either, as highlighted by the International Agency for Research on Cancer having classified it as a "possible human carcinogen."

How using your phone affects sleep

While Narula says that there’s “not too much to be worried about in terms of radiation coming from a phone that's next to you,” she adds that sleeping next to your phone can have a different kind of impact on your health. For one thing, you’re far more likely to use your phone close to bedtime if it’s right next to where you sleep, and “there has been so much evidence that shows people who do use their phones right before bed or in bed are more likely to have insufficient or poor quality sleep compared to those that kind of put their phones away an hour or two before bed.”

“Phones require a lot of manual control and an active mind to use them,” she says. “That provokes the sense of wakefulness and alertness, which is not ideal for when you are trying to wind down. Stimulation that comes from having a phone next to you, even if you use it for five minutes, you’re still in that active state of arousal, which can impact sleep.”

How light can can have an impact on sleep

Outside of the interaction with one’s phone, the light it emits can be a big problem. Light helps us maintain our circadian rhythm, which is our sleep-wake cycle. Humans, in general, have a 24-hour circadian rhythm, and the natural light coming from the sun helps stimulate feelings of alertness and arousal, which allows us to stay awake during the day. When evening comes, and the light goes down, so does our level of alertness. But smartphones, as well as TVs and tablets, emit light — and our brain can’t distinguish between it and the sun. That interferes with our melatonin production, which is the hormone that makes us feel tired.

“Melatonin levels are generally lower in people who use their phones during bedtime, which can impact our sleep quality, as well as our REM sleep, which is the stage of sleep that we dream — the state of sleep that helps us with emotions and processing memories,” Narula says. “A reduction in REM sleep can interfere with our alertness levels and increase stress in general, which can lead to physical and mental health issues.”

Not everyone needs to give up the phone by their bed

Dr. Rafael Pelayo, professor of sleep medicine at Stanford University and author of How to Sleep: The New Science-Based Solutions for Sleeping Through the Night, says that whether or not you should sleep with your phone next to your bed depends on your relationship with your phone. People with chronic insomnia, for example, may find that sleeping next to their phone increases hypervigilance during bedtime, meaning that they are all too aware of the things that will keep them awake — leading them to get less sleep overall. But the impact of having a phone near your bed can fluctuate with the circumstances of your life.

“If somebody were to tell you, ‘Hey, I may or may not call you at 3 a.m. to pick me up at the airport,’ you're not going to sleep well that night because at any moment you may expect that phone call, even if it never comes. If the phone enhances that hypervigilance in you, then it's going to disturb your sleep,” he says. “On the other hand, let's say you live alone, and you worry somebody's going to break in. Having a phone nearby may provide you a feeling of security. So it’s not the phone, per se, but what it represents to you.”