Could Binge-Watching Be Keeping You Up At Night?
Binge watching has become a huge deal over recent years. For many people, it is now the default way to enjoy shows. Many streaming services cater right to this, auto-playing episodes one after the next without pause.
But you may have heard there are some concerns about binge watching and sleep—namely that binge watching late at night can lead to insomnia. Can binge watching really keep you awake? If so, why? Let’s take a look at the evidence and go over some theories.
What Does the Evidence Say?
There has actually been research conducted in the area of binge watching and sleep. Consider this study, titled “Binge Viewing, Sleep, and the Role of Pre-Sleep Arousal.”
The researchers recruited 423 adults between the ages of 18 and 25 to fill out a questionnaire about their viewing habits and the quality of their sleep. The researchers reported, “Higher binge-viewing frequency was associated with a poorer sleep quality, increased fatigue and more symptoms of insomnia, whereas regular television viewing was not. Cognitive pre-sleep arousal fully mediated these relationships.”
The definition of binge watching which was used for this research was fairly vague, being only “watching multiple consecutive episodes of the same television show in one sitting on a screen.”
This would seem to imply that even watching two consecutive episodes of one television show would qualify as binge viewing for the purposes of this research.
You may be wondering what “pre-sleep arousal” is. To help you understand, here is a Pre-Sleep Arousal Scale.
The scale asks a participant to rate various physical and psychological symptoms on a scale from 1 to 5 to assess their severity at bedtime.
Some examples of a few of these symptoms include (paraphrased):
- Whether your heart is pounding or racing
- Whether you feel cold
- Whether you are having digestive symptoms
- Whether you have racing thoughts
- Whether you are anxious
- Whether you are concerned you won’t be able to sleep
- Whether you are thinking about things other than sleep
With that context in place, let’s move on to discussing cognitive arousal and other possible factors mediating the relationship between binge watching and lost sleep.
Why Binge-Watching Might Be Keeping You Awake
1. Cognitive arousal
If you take a look at the pre-sleep arousal scale which I shared previously, you can note the cognitive symptoms on the right-hand side.
Some of those symptoms seem more likely to be related to binge watching than others.
In particular, it seems like “review or ponder events of the day” might increase if you cannot get your mind off of the show that you are engaged with. It also seems like “being mentally alert, active” would likely increase as well.
If you do binge watch and noticed that you have these problems, it should be pretty simple to assess whether the two are related.
If, for example, you went to bed each night during the eight-year run of Game of Thrones thinking obsessively about what you had seen and what might happen next, perhaps those thoughts did keep you awake.
It is important to note that there might be exceptions, however.
I can tell you, as an example, that under both the physical and psychological symptoms on the pre-sleep arousal scale, I could write anywhere from 3-5 on a typical night, and I consider “3” pretty good.
But if I am reflecting even semi-calmly on a show I have been enjoying, I am not “reviewing or pondering events of the day” (other events) nearly as much, and my “depression or anxious thoughts” are reduced, as I am not “worrying about problems other than sleep” as much.
Even so, I can certainly recall nights that binge watching did keep me up. Then again, I can also recall nights single episodes kept me awake too.
Key Point: Binge watching might feasibly keep a person awake by increasing cognitive arousal, and research shows that this is a trend. But if a TV show reduces anxious thoughts about your own life at bedtime, there might be exceptional cases where the opposite happens (in other words, it becomes the lesser of two evils).
2. The temptation to stay up too late
Another obvious potential problem with binge watching and insomnia would be when you upset your sleep schedule because you are so hooked on the show.
“Just one more episode” late at night might easily turn into “just another,” and “just another” after that.
By the time you do get to bed, it could be hours past your usual time. This can throw off your body and your brain. They can be especially bad if you are someone who relies on strict routines to function.
If you end up going to bed outside of one of your ideal “sleep windows” (times when it is easier for your body to fall asleep), that can exacerbate the problem.
If you’re not sure what I am referring to, think about your own bedtime. Hopefully, you go to bed at a time when you feel sleepy each night. But you may have noticed that your body cycles through feeling more sleepy and more alert throughout the night.
Taking myself as an example, I have an easier time falling asleep between 11 pm and midnight than I do between midnight and 1 am. I also have an easier time falling asleep between 1 am and 2:30 am or so. After that, I have a very hard time falling asleep until after 4:00 am.
So if I am binge watching and planning to go to bed by 11:30 pm, and wind up going to bed around 12:30 am, I may struggle to fall asleep.
Ironically, this may result in performance anxiety which keeps me awake even well past the 1:00 am to 2:30 am window.
Or let’s assume I mean to go to bed by 1:00 am, but stay up watching until 2:00 am. By the time I get to bed, I am at the tail end of my window, and there is a good chance I won’t pass out until after 4:00 am.
Your sleep windows could be entirely different from mine, but you have them. If your binge watching has you going to bed outside of them, you may easily lose out on hours of sleep, especially if your cognitive arousal levels are high.
Key Point: Binge watching late at night can tempt us to stay up past our bedtimes.
3. Blue light
Another way that binge watching at night could interfere with your sleep involves blue light.
TV screens, laptops, desktop computer monitors and mobile screens all emit significant amounts of blue light.
This may sound like an innocuous thing, but the problem is that the sun also emits blue light, and your body is programmed to respond to it and think “daytime.”
This is tied to what is known as your “circadian rhythms.”
As described by the National Institute of Health, your circadian rhythms are “physical, mental and behavioral changes that follow a roughly 24-hour cycle, responding primarily to light and darkness.”
This is the same thing which is referred to as your “biological clock.”
During the day, sunlight tells your biological clock that it is time to be awake. This results in a decrease of melatonin production in your body.
Melatonin is a hormone which helps you to feel sleepy. So during the daytime, getting more sunlight helps you to feel more alert.
At nighttime, however, you want to feel sleepy. You want your melatonin production to increase around bedtime.
Unfortunately, blue light from electronic devices does the same thing as sunlight. Your body, mistaking it as such, believes that it is daytime and time for melatonin production to decrease.
Harvard Medical School writes:
“Harvard researchers and their colleagues conducted an experiment comparing the effects of 6.5 hours of exposure to blue light to exposure to green light of comparable brightness. The blue light suppressed melatonin for about twice as long as the green light and shifted circadian rhythms by twice as much (3 hours vs. 1.5 hours).”
Additionally, there is research which indicates that blue light can depress mood. This could lead to further disruption of sleep.
You can read about blue light insomnia in depth in this blog post.
As with many things health-related, there do seem to be exceptions in some cases.
Going back to myself as an example, playing video games right before bed is a huge help for me sleeping.
I assume that the reasons are twofold:
- Perhaps I am less susceptible than the average person to the effects of blue light.
- For me, cognitive arousal is the main thing that keeps me awake, and the gaming helps me reduce it tremendously.
So figure out what works for you. Perhaps you are an exception who does just fine binge watching before bed. If it calms you down (as might be the case for some people, at least), those cognitive benefits might outweigh the blue light side effects.
Key Point: The blue light from a TV or laptop screen can reduce melatonin production late at night when we need melatonin to help us sleep. This phenomenon is referred to as “blue-light insomnia.” This could be another potential mechanism through which binge watching could disrupt sleep.
How to Avoid Letting Binge-Watching Keep You Awake
Now that you are aware that there does appear to be a relationship between binge watching and lost sleep, you may find yourself thinking twice about a late-night binge.
But you probably do not want to give up on binge watching altogether, including at night.
So what can you do to reduce potential problems?
1. Set a strict schedule
The easiest thing to get around in terms of binge watching and sleep problems is going to bed too late.
There is no reason that this ever actually has to happen so long as you set strict limits and follow through on them.
You can do this by setting a time that you will go to bed. If starting another episode means going to bed later than that time, you simply do not do it.
Self-discipline in this regard should not actually be all that difficult if you are dealing with insomnia now. Putting an end to it is pretty much its own motivation.
2. Avoid using your mobile device for binge-watching
The American Academy of Sleep Medicine writes, “Stream videos to your TV instead of your mobile device at night to reduce exposure to brightly lit, handheld screens. Avoid using mobile devices while in bed.”
3. Dim your screen or use a blue-light filter
Speaking of avoiding brightly lit screens, another option is to dim your screen. Whether or not this option appeals to you probably depends on what you are willing to put up with in terms reducing the quality of your experience.
Personally, I find that super bright screens actually produce eyestrain for me, so I keep my laptop screen partially dimmed all the time (I believe my TV screen is also not at full brightness). It probably helps with melatonin levels as well.
You can also filter out some of the blue light emitted from your electronic devices with the use of apps for screening out blue light. It should be noted that if you do use one of these apps, it will give the content you are viewing a reddish tint, and will therefore impact your viewing experience.
You will need to decide whether this is too big an inconvenience or not. It may depend on what you are watching and how important the lighting is to the directing and atmosphere of the show.
4. Try relaxation techniques or mindfulness
The American Academy of Sleep Medicine explains, “If you’re not ready to give up your Netflix marathons, there’s still hope. According to Exelmans and co-author Jan Van den Bulck, PhD, relaxation techniques and mindfulness could help minimize sleep problems related to binge watching.”
This makes sense, especially if you do those relaxation techniques or meditations after you binge watch and before you go to bed. You could even do that while you are lying in bed waiting to fall asleep.
This would help to reduce your cognitive arousal levels. It might also reduce the symptoms of physical over-excitement (i.e. racing heart or labored breathing).
There are numerous different techniques that you could consider trying. For some people, mindfulness may work best. For others, something like yoga could be better, while still others might benefit from visualization exercises or breathing exercises.
The trick, as usual, is simply to try different things until you find something which works well for you.
5. Do something else which clears your head before bed
Even though standardized relaxation techniques and meditations can work well for some people, others may benefit more from doing some other kind of relaxing activity.
To refer to myself as an example once again, I have found what works best for me (as mentioned before) is playing video games.
Ironically, that involves more blue light exposure, as also previously mentioned.
But there are endless ideas for what you could do to clear your head. Reading a book might be good, or working on a craft or hardware project. You could also consider going on a walk. This can be good for discharging excess energy and anxiety.
6. Avoid having screens on half an hour before bedtime
Another bit of advice for preventing binge watching from disrupting your sleep is something to make sure that you are not doing it half an hour or less before bedtime.
If you go a step further and switch off all of your screens for at least 30 minutes before going to bed, this also will tell your body that it is nighttime, and therefore, higher melatonin production should commence.
7. Take a supplement to promote healthy, restful sleep
Finally, something else you can do to make it easier to fall asleep and improve the quality of the sleep you get is to take an herbal supplement.
Ingredients such as passionflower, valerian, chamomile and magnesium have research backing them.
If you take the supplement every night, it should help you regardless of your binging habits.
Conclusion: Binge-Watching Can Cause Sleep Loss, But There Are Healthy Workarounds
It can be discouraging to hear that there are studies showing that binge watching can reduce the sleep we get.
But we have a pretty high degree of control over the various factors involved, at least insofar as we currently understand things.
We can set limits on ourselves to prevent ourselves from staying up too late. We can switch off our screens late at night, and we can do relaxing, mind-clearing activities before bed.
That means it is possible to binge watch the healthy way, enjoying our favorite shows and getting the sleep we need each night!