The new “Night Shift” feature in Apple’s iOS 9.3 update is the latest attempt by an electronics maker to reduce the amount of blue light tech device displays emit.
What’s wrong with blue light? It can mess with the body’s melatonin levels, prevent people from nodding off at night, and create other sleep problems. A number of studies have been done on the subject of blue light and sleep, including an oft-cited report published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in late 2014.
During the past year or so, the tech industry gave the green light to software updates that attempt to suppress or minimize the blue light that’s beamed from device screens. Of course, the tech companies’ motives aren’t entirely altruistic; device makers don’t benefit if their customers stop looking at mobile screens 60 to 90 minutes before bedtime, as doctors suggest.
I’m actively trying to avoid blue light before lights out, but it’s a challenge for three reasons: my monkey mind and active life make me prone to sleeplessness; I tend to be busy all day, so I store articles in Pocket to read later — and “later” usually means 30 to 60 minutes before bedtime; and I made the switch from print to ebooks years ago, and I have several digital magazine and newspaper subscriptions.
Amazon Kindle ereaders and Fire tablets don’t cut it
I want a device to read articles and novels on before bed. Amazon’s dedicated Kindle ereaders, with their eink displays, haven’t disrupted my sleep, as far as I am aware. However, they also don’t provide a satisfying reading experience, especially with magazines and newspapers.
The size and weight of Apple’s iPad mini 4 (the current generation) [ Find it on Amazon – *What’s this?* ] makes it an ideal bedtime ereader, now that Apple updated iOS with Night Shift. I tested Night Shift for a few nights and found that it helps minimize the alertness I sometimes feel after reading on a device for a long time. (The iPad mini 4’s screen is easy to read in bright sunlight, which means it’s a good ereader for sunny days, too.)
I also prefer the iPad mini 4 with Night Shift, as an reader, to Amazon’s Fire HD 8 Reader’s Edition tablet, which debuted late last year and has Amazon’s “Blue Shade” feature. Though I like Amazon’s tablet, I also find it to be intolerably slow and sometimes buggy.
Back to Night Shift. The feature is easy to enable and adjust. You just swipe up from the bottom of your iOS device screen, and you’ll see a partially-shaded sun icon. When you tap it Night Shift gives your screen an amber cast.
You can adjust Night Shift settings by going into Settings > Display & Brightness, where you get three controls that let you automatically schedule Night Shift to kick in; manually enable it “until tomorrow;” and adjust the color temperature from “Less Warm” to “More Warm” using a slider. As you drag the slider, you get a quick preview of how the screen will look. More Warm makes the screen deeply amber; Less Warm is more off-white.
In addition to Night Shift, you can also use some apps’ screen contrast adjustments. For example, Pocket for iOS offers a “Dark Theme” that turns black text into white text against a dark background.
What’s not to love about iOS 9.3’s Night Shift?
Night Shift is 64-bit code, so it only works on iPhone 5s or later; iPad Pro, iPad Air or later; iPad mini 2 or later; and the 6th generation iPod touch. It also doesn’t work when a device is in low power mode.
At least one Night Shift critic believes the feature is little more than a placebo. “Night Shift, which turns down the amount of blue light produced by the display, won’t significantly affect the production of melatonin enough to influence the circadian rhythm and improve the user’s nighttime sleep cycle,” says Raymond Soneira, president of DisplayMate, a video diagnostics company.
Night Shift seems to work for me, but it could be in my mind. You should also be aware of two more caveats about all blue shade-blocking technologies. First, you need to be comfortable reading content through an amber or sepia filter, which takes some getting used to. Second, and most important, it’s not just how you read late at night that can disrupt your sleep, but also what you read.
For example, late one night, I read a news article on my Kindle tablet (with the Blue Shade on) about the current presidential campaign. The article was not particularly upsetting. But all the inane, vitriolic comments on the story had my blood boiling. It took me two hours to fall asleep after reading them.
Your best bet is to turn Night Shift or other blue light technologies on, and then stick to reading stuff that isn’t about politics, work, or anything else that might push your buttons.
Related video: True Tone on iPad Pro vs. Night Shift in iOS 9.3
James A. Martin is a seasoned tech journalist and blogger based in San Francisco and winner of the 2014 ASBPE National Gold award for his CIO.com blog. He writes CIO.com's Living the Tech Life blog and is also a content marketing consultant.