I’m Dependent on My Phone—and I’ve Never Slept Better

Ironically, using a device to help me fall asleep has relieved me of the burden of self-moralizing about my tech usage. 

For the past several months, I’ve fallen asleep listening to a woman named Teri—or someone like her—every night. I crawl into bed around midnight, open a certain proprietary wellness app on my phone, tap the “sleep hypnosis” section, and mindlessly select one of the hundreds of available tracks. Then I place my phone face-down on my pillow, just beside my head, and focus on the voice in my ear. I often drift off before the recording is over. I haven’t slept so well in years. 

I have no idea who Teri is. Her bio identifies her as a “trainer of hypnotherapy and NLP.” According to a little research, NLP stands for something called Neuro Linguistic Programming, a pseudoscientific method of hypnotic instruction somewhere between life-coaching and magical thinking. On other nights I choose Dorothy, a “licensed psychotherapist and meditation teacher,” or Anaïs, a “neuromindfulness coach.” From a scientific standpoint, I haven’t found much evidence that these methods are proven effective for dealing with insomnia. The tracks are cheesy—usually backgrounded by chimes or the gentle pitter-patter of rain—and the whispered platitudes sound silly when I listen to them in the light of day. 

I don’t care. The app works. These disembodied voices provide a desperately needed transition period—from day to night, from language to silence, from sociality to solitude. And perhaps most importantly, they ease me from my technologically saturated existence into sleep. The irony is that this transition into sleep is made possible by my phone. I’ve become ever more married to it at the exact moment that I’m supposed to detach from it to rest. This is, perhaps, a paradox worthy of the great meditation teachers, who tell you that in order to find peace, you must let go of the effort to achieve it. 

Any doctor, any website, any random person on the street will tell you that the first line of defense against sleepless nights is to develop a calming nightly routine. In professional parlance this is called “sleep hygiene.” The top rules of sleep hygiene include: rigid schedules for bedtime and wake time; cutting out caffeine, alcohol, and food before bed; and getting away from all screens at night. 

Hygiene is a telling word. It’s no coincidence that the predecessors of these rules were invented during the Victorian era as part of a puritanical response to perceived “unnatural” technological interventions into daily life, like telegraphy, radio, and electric lighting, which were blamed for a new “epidemic” of insomnia in the upper classes. Over the intervening century and a half, these sleep-disrupting technologies have been combined into the precious, reviled, all-consuming object that fits in the palm of my hand. The object that I compulsively check for updates. The object that transmits the voices of my employers and my loved ones (and now my hypnotists) into my ears. The object that I fondle in my coat pocket while walking down the street. The object that I have a nearly impossible time convincing myself to turn off at 10 pm.

I’ve been a bad sleeper for as long as I can remember, and a hyperbolically terrible sleeper for the past few years. I’ve followed the usual quest for solutions: sleep studies, various types of therapy, dozens of drugs. I’ve changed my diet, exercised to exhaustion, chewed handfuls of melatonin gummies. But in my experience, sleep doctors and wellness gurus alike obsess about the screen thing in particular, which is telling. The message I’ve gotten is that all the social, economic, and political reasons why I’m both exhausted and unable to sleep could be remedied by a personally imposed stricter approach to the screen. Lock your phone in a box, they urge. Install an app that shuts down your other apps. Write an auto-responder. Set boundaries. Exercise self-control! 

For a bonafide insomniac, these tips and tricks can sound like a cruel joke. From the r/insomnia subreddit: “You think normal people have to put their phones in another room, read for 20 minutes, never drink coffee, have a humidifier, listen to 20 minutes of calm music, take a hot bath, no screens after 8pm just to get a wink of sleep? Fuck Sleep Hygiene preachers.” Or: “Insomnia. Severe. Don’t tell me about sleep hygiene, this is an emergency.” 

Besides the often warranted alarmism about the health effects of connectivity, from too much light at night to tech neck, I also find remnants of a deep cultural anxiety about what’s natural that date back to the moral panic of bourgeois Victorians. The phone, the thinking still goes, is an artificial object that forces us to live contrary to our natures—as if there were a pure, unadulterated, tech-free existence to get back to. If only I could escape the stranglehold of the screen, I’ve been conditioned to believe, I could refind myself. I could get in touch with my body, I could slow down, I could rest.

Tech use and insomnia create a chicken-egg problem. The more you scroll—the blue light activating the retinal ganglions in your eyes that signal daylight to your brain—the harder it is to sleep, and the harder it is to sleep, the more likely you are likely to zone out and scroll. 

It was during one of these zombie-like doomscrolls about six months ago that I happened upon a targeted advertisement for a $59.99 annual subscription for the aforementioned sleep hypnosis app. I’ve fallen prey to a few of these self-help fixes over the years—if you’re scrolling at 4 am, the algorithm knows you’re vulnerable—and I didn’t have much hope that this would help. Imagine my surprise when I selected a recording by someone named Jason and drifted off only a few minutes into his banal instructions to imagine myself floating in a body of warm water. The next morning when I woke up, my phone was still in my hand.

After a few weeks of relative success with the audio recordings (no, I’m not cured, but the difference is night and day, so to speak), I considered that hypnotism was the magic bullet I’d been waiting for. But actually—hadn’t I tried hypnosis before? And found it pointless? Were these recordings even real hypnosis? I’d long since experimented with several meditation and wellness apps to wind down at the end of the day without effect. Early evening is when sleep hygiene experts will tell you to use such apps, because, remember, having your phone in bed is bad for you

I have started to suspect that the audio content, while calming, is secondary to the true function of the app in my life. The reason it works is more disturbing, because of what it indicates about my relationship to screens—and the scattered, overstimulated state of my mind, even when I’m not in the act of answering emails or refreshing my feed. Bringing my phone to bed, but using it for something different, relieves me of the burden of forcing myself to disconnect: the burden of self-moralizing about my tech usage. 

This app, designed to counter the hypervigilance instilled in me by so many other apps, epitomizes the classic double-bind of tech dependency. I’ve always been resistant to the app-for-that mentality whereby every tech problem can be remedied by a tech solution, an attitude that scales up to the largest structures of society. But in this case, the qualities of the app itself seem arbitrary. Its design isn’t intuitive; its content isn’t fantastic; its tech isn’t ground-breaking. Its true function is not to hypnotize me at all. It’s to relieve me of the obligation to put my phone, and myself, on silent mode. I don’t have to force myself to draw a line in the sand. I just casually carry my phone into my bedroom—like the intimate object it is—and tuck it into bed. 

“Turn off all distractions,” Teri instructs me as I close my eyes. But the app doesn’t allow me to download her recordings. I have to keep my phone online just to channel her voice. Inevitably, I wake up to dozens of messages.

So many of the metaphors we use for sleep are related to tech—switch off, power down, unplug—as if we can’t imagine a relationship with rest that isn’t a function of, or in opposition to, our relationship with connectivity. But obsessing about this uneasy attachment has only exhausted me further. I’m always working. Making myself set boundaries and demarcations around the phone itself is yet more work to do. 

I’m aware that my devices are designed to blast my system with dopamine, and that it’s not strictly my fault that my brain responds accordingly. I’m aware, too, that personal wellness has been framed as an individual responsibility because there are so few social supports available to help people care for themselves and one another. I’ve hoped for a long time that, at least while literally unconscious, I could absent myself from my position as a consumer of content and of products, a person with Wi-Fi on. But my awareness of these structural problems has not helped me deal with them on a somatic level. My nervous system has been fundamentally, and likely irreversibly, altered by decades of clicking and tapping.

The causal relationship between networked tech and insomnia has been well documented and heavily theorized about. Perhaps the best known and most pointed examination of 21st-century exhaustion is Jonathan Crary’s 2014 book 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep, which details the always-on-ness of contemporary life. But Crary’s point is not simply that technology has ruined our ability to rest; it’s that the economic and social systems that gave rise to and depend on our compulsive use of such technologies are what make us so exhausted. Rest has become a privilege. The issue is not my phone, just as the real issue in the 19th century was not electric lighting, but rapid industrialization, colonialism, and class stratification. The issue is that I’m a precarious worker who can’t bring myself to, or can’t afford to, stop working. In this sense, the phone is a red herring. A distraction—as it’s designed to be.

In the short term and on the small scale, I reluctantly accept my phone as pharmakon, both poison and cure. Perhaps I could think of my many phone-based compromises as harm reduction rather than abstinence—an approach that requires admitting you have a problem and a sober assessment of the situation, if not outright sobriety.

Insomnia, just like any mental health concern, is both entirely personal and intensely sociopolitical. I’m hardwired (another tech metaphor!) to sleep badly, this I’m sure of, but my circumstances are what make this condition untenable. Fighting against this tech-fix in my daily life is not worth my energy. Moralizing my phone use or trying to get rid of it hasn’t worked. Each night, I tell myself that if I’m going to have the energy to resist the techno-dystopia to come, I’m going to need a good night’s sleep.