Having your phone next to the bed might save you from a tsunami — but should you sacrifice your sleep?

Early on Tuesday morning people living in coastal communities across B.C. woke up to a terrifying message — a tsunami could be coming, after a large earthquake was recorded off the coast of Alaska.

But there were others who slept through the entire ordeal — only to see that they’d missed the alert entirely when they checked their phones in the morning.

The immediacy of smartphone communication — and the extent to which we’re glued to our mobile devices — have made them an important resource for governments developing warning systems about potential natural disasters.

But bodies of research have also shown that sleeping in close proximity to your smartphone can potentially have major negative effects on your health. 

Wendy Hall, a professor of nursing at the University of British Columbia, said she doesn’t think the side effects of going through life sleep-deprived are worth it.

“I look at the long-term risk of interrupted sleep, versus the small-term risk that I’m going to be unattainable during an emergency message,” she said.

So what are we to do?


Long-term risks 

Hall said that people who sleep with their phone nearby are more likely to experience higher levels of stress, anxiety, depression, and are more likely to get into car accidents.

And it’s not only because their sleep is being interrupted by a barrage of texts and emails.

Cellphones also emit blue light, which suppresses the production of melatonin — the hormone that controls sleep cycles. That can delay the onset of sleep and reduce sleep quality.

Hall, who lives in Vancouver, said that despite the potential risk of a major earthquake, she never sleeps with her phone in her bedroom.

“For me, the sleep piece is more important than being able to constantly monitor what’s going on in the larger world in terms of whether there’s an imminent disaster about to strike.”

Hall said that instead of focusing on text alerts, the province should be considering implementing emergency sirens — a practice that’s already in place for high-risk communities like Tofino and Ucluelet on the west coast of Vancouver Island, two communities in the province’s tsunami warning area.

A series of text messages sent to some local residents about the tsunami threat on Tuesday Jan. 23, 2018.(Megan Thomas/CBC)

The question of sleep versus safety is one that Paul Anderson, an associate professor with Simon Fraser University’s school of communication, also grapples with. Anderson has worked on developing warning systems in B.C. and is aware of the negative impact smartphones can have on overall health.

He too is trying to disconnect.

But if you live in an area that is at risk for a tsunami or earthquake, he said, being reachable should be a priority.

“Maybe that means at least one person in the household always their phone on,” he said.

‘There’s no silver bullet’

B.C.’s executive director operations of emergency management Chris Duffy said there is no one-size-fits-all approach to contacting everyone who may be affected.

“There’s no silver bullet. We’re not going to get to the point where we hit a button and 4.2 million people are awake, alerted, and ready to go,” he said.

In April, the province is rolling out a wireless emergency alert system that will send push alerts to cellphones in all affected areas via text or cell broadcasting — making smartphones the primary way that most of the population will be alerted about a natural disaster.

The alert will get to everyone whose phone is turned on — but won’t necessarily make a sound if your phone is set to mute.

Anderson said that though Tuesday’s warning may have traumatized many, it may also be a wake-up call — so to speak — for those who did not receive the alert.

“I think the public learned a lot — people might be thinking, ‘We don’t have a siren in the community and I left my cellphone off, and and maybe that wasn’t such a good idea.'”

There are communities in B.C. that are not covered by cell service. Some may receive warnings through calls to their land lines, or even by fax. 


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