Every year, fewer people are able to see the stars in the sky at night. As city skylines get brighter and residential neighborhoods move to fluorescent and LED-powered lighting, the result — light pollution — gets a little more widespread.
We continue to learn more about the science of light and how it affects our brains, but we don’t always understand how to make the right changes in response.
For example, it’s a widely agreed-upon fact that artificial blue light from backlit phone and computer screens may be harming our ability to fall asleep. In response, many technology manufacturers are programming devices to go into night mode after a certain hour, where the screen lighting switches from blue to a warmer color to help the user go to sleep more easily. But research on the topic says that night mode may be harming people’s sleep cycles more than backlit screens already were, especially if the light is too bright.
While there’s some debate over the right steps to take, it’s clear that light pollution is changing things in our world. What kind of effect is it having on our mental health?
What Is Light Pollution?
Light pollution is defined as any excessive use of artificial light, including bright electronic screens and skyglow, the name for the illuminated night sky caused by city lights. Lights have become brighter over the years — cold, high-efficiency LEDs can now be found in streetlights, car headlights and the backlights that illuminate the screens of phones, tablets, computers and televisions. Light pollution has existed since the advent of the light bulb, and it’s getting gradually worse over time. But is this progression damaging to our health?
The Effect That Light Has on the Brain
Light is beneficial to many aspects of health. Studies have shown that sunlight can have a variety of positive impacts on health, and a deficiency of vitamin D from sunlight has been linked with several mood disorders.
Seasonal affective disorder, or SAD, is the phenomenon felt by people who live in areas where certain seasons bring minimal direct sunlight. It’s normal to crave bright spaces and areas where we can be exposed to a lot of light — but the source of that light matters.
Negative Effects of Light Pollution on Humans
Let’s take blue light, for example. It’s a high-energy source of light that has been talked about a lot for its potential to damage the eyes and prevent healthy sleep. What hasn’t been talked about as much is that before the dawn of electricity, we were getting plenty of blue light from the sun. This is the type of light that’s believed to play the biggest role in regulating the body’s circadian rhythms, or wake-sleep cycles. This shows that when and how we’re exposed to certain light change the way we respond to it.
Here’s what we know about light, and how it affects our mental health:
- Light pollution is linked with a decrease of average night’s sleep length in adolescents. A study published in JAMA Psychiatry found that in areas with high outdoor light pollution, sleep for the average American teen was likely to dip below healthy levels. This mirrors the widely held belief that bright light from indoor screens is also having a negative effect.
- Studies have linked sleep deprivation with the onset of depression and other mental illnesses. Experts claim that people — adolescents especially — are getting less sleep and paying the price. When people get less than adequate sleep, they risk poor performance at work and in school, increased mood swings and irritability and heightened risk for depression and anxiety.
Teens are at the highest level of risk because they tend to be the most engaged with artificial light from screens, but these effects can occur with anyone, especially those living in urban and suburban areas of higher outdoor light pollution.
Tips to Reduce the Impact of Light Pollution
As with many external factors that affect our mental health, it’s not always possible to avoid light pollution. If you live or work near a city, skyglow is unavoidable, and in some occupations or educational pursuits, it may be impossible to avoid looking at screens for an extended period of time.
With this in mind, what we’ve found is that many of the negative effects of light pollution come from its impact on the quality and quantity of a person’s sleep.
Warm up the Lighting in and Around Your Home
Unfortunately, you can’t control what your neighbors do with their lighting, but you certainly can make the lights in and around your home friendlier to everyone’s internal clocks. Use warmer bulbs in indoor and outdoor fixtures, especially those that are used as primary sources of light.
Set Parameters for the Use of Electronics at Night
If you or your family are often scrolling on phones, watching TV or playing video games until late at night, it may be having an effect on your sleep. Set hard limits on your screen time after a certain hour, and instead, read a book to wind down from the day.
If you have to use screens at night, make sure they’re as dim as possible while still being usable. This applies even when a device is in night mode.
Take Control of Your Sleep Environment
For people who live in urban areas, streetlights and the illumination of the city can make it difficult to get high-quality sleep. You may even fool yourself into thinking that low-quality sleep is normal because constant light has made it a nightly occurrence. Invest in blackout curtains or a sleep mask to create the darkest environment possible when you go to bed. Once you become acclimated to the change, you’ll likely find it easier to go to sleep and wake up less often during the night.
FHE and Mental Health
Mental health disorders linked to light pollution are a perfect example of the fact that not everything can be fixed with lifestyle changes. You can make changes to your habits with technology or to the amount of artificial light you receive during different times of the day, but you can’t stop looking at screens altogether or change your outdoor environment with the flip of a switch. Some issues need to be addressed with the help of a mental health professional.
If you or a loved one is struggling with a mental health disorder, we can help. Call us at FHE Health at (833) 596-3502 to learn about every option available to you.