I like a good binge-watching session as much as anyone. Not long ago, I blew through all 96 episodes of Entourage in about two weeks! It seems I’m in good company. According to a recent survey, 70 percent of Americans are binge watchers.
With technology including streaming services and on-demand content transforming the way we consume media, it’s important to ask: What effects does all this binge viewing have on the soundness of our sleep?
Binge watching and sleep quality
A new study tackles just that question. Scientists from University of Michigan and Belgium’s University of Leuven investigated the prevalence of binge watching, and how these extended viewing sessions impact sleep. The study included 423 young adults ages 18-25. Researchers analyzed their regular TV-watching habits and binge-watching habits—the latter defined as “watching multiple, consecutive episodes of the same TV-show in one sitting”—along with assessments of their sleep quality, fatigue, and insomnia.
They found strong links between binge watching and sleep problems:
- Slightly more than 80 percent of participants considered themselves binge watchers—and among those, slightly more than 20 percent had binge watched at least a few times a week over the past month
- Among people identified as poor sleepers, about 1 in 3 experienced poor sleep quality linked to binge watching.
- Binge watching was linked to insomnia symptoms, fatigue, and poor sleep quality.
Researchers found differences between regular TV watching and binge viewing. Regular TV watching wasn’t associated with poor sleep quality—but binge watching was.
How does binge watching disrupt sleep?
There may be a number of factors involved. Researchers in this study found sleep disturbances from binge watching were a result of mental stimulation that came from extended viewing in the evenings, a form of stimulation known as “pre-sleep arousal.” Being exposed to the content of the programming—storylines, action, imagery—stimulates brain activity and alertness. And the duration of a binge-watch session creates enough pre-sleep arousal to interfere with our ability to fall asleep. Watching back-to-back episodes of your current favorite show may feel like a relaxing escape at the end of the day, but it’s actually getting your brain fired up, not helping it wind down.
Binge watching is a relatively new phenomenon, and scientific findings about its relationship with mental and physical health are just beginning to arrive. Recent research links binge watching to feelings of loneliness, as well as depression and anxiety. A new study out of the United Kingdom shows that nearly a third of UK adults and teenagers think binge-watching has caused them to miss out on sleep or feel tired.
There’s a longer history of research into the effects of TV watching—and plenty of evidence suggesting that too much of it is bad for sleep, as well as mental and physical well being. Watching more than two hours of TV on a daily basis is linked to several common sleep problems:
- trouble falling asleep
- waking during the night
- waking early in the morning and being unable to fall back to sleep
The lure of television can push bedtimes later and result in greater sleep debt, according to research. Sleep debt is the difference between the amount of sleep you need and the amount of sleep you actually get.