70% of Americans binge-watch their TV. The average Netflix viewer finishes an entire season in just 5 days, and the majority of Netflix viewers commonly watch two to six episodes of the same show in one sitting.
Binge-watching isn’t just mainstream; it’s sought after and considered desirable. Binge-watchers have taken to calling themselves “power” viewers, while one aspiring individual set a Guinness World Record for binge-watching for 94 hours straight.
Unfortunately, all that binge-watching spells bad news for sleep. Sleep and binge-watching are at odds with each other, to the point where Netflix has called sleep its “greatest enemy.”
Why is binge-watching so bad for sleep? Is there any way to enjoy a good binge-watching session without it ruining your sleep? Read on for answers to questions like these and more.
Why your Netflix binge is bad for your sleep
There are a lot of things that cause sleep deprivation: stress, late nights responding to work emails or finishing homework, and engaging in poor sleep hygiene like eating or exercising heavily late at night.
There’s one new contributor we can add to the list of bad sleep culprits: binge-watching TV. Theoretically, it makes sense that binge-watching would interfere with our sleep: we stay up later than we want, watching episode after episode. Before we know it, those cliffhangers have kept us awake until three in the morning.
But it’s not just theoretical. Researchers have actually proven the threat binge-watching poses to our sleep. In a 2018 study published in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine, researchers found that over one-third of binge-watchers experience poor sleep. Further, there was a strong relationship between the frequency of binge viewing and its negative impact on sleep quality. The more participants engaged in binge-watching, the worse their sleep, and the more often they experienced daytime fatigue and other insomnia symptoms.
The same relationship did not exist with regular television viewing, so what’s so bad about binge-watching in particular? Researchers attribute it to two main factors: pre-sleep arousal and the blue light coming from the TV, phone, tablet, or computer used for binge-watching.
Pre-sleep arousal refers to the way the content you’re watching activates your brain and body. When you binge-watch, you become invested in the show (that’s what keeps you bingeing, after all). You’re nervous about what’s going to happen next, upset about the fight two characters just had, or thrilled when they finally make up.
All these feelings don’t just exist in your head. Your heart pounds and you become more alert as your brain literally tunes into the action. Meanwhile, your brain releases more dopamine, the pleasure chemical that mimics the feeling of being high. The more you watch, the more dopamine is released, and the more your brain craves it. This explains why it’s so hard to stop binge-watching. It’s a type of addiction.
When your body and brain are this activated, it’s the opposite of the relaxation and “shutting-off” period your body needs to induce sleep. Even if you’re just lying there, your body feels “on.”
Unsurprisingly, pre-sleep arousal is stronger with dramas and video games than other type of content consumed on electronic devices. Problematically, those are exactly the types of shows people are most likely to binge:
There’s one other key way binge-watching Netflix interferes with sleep. No matter whether you’re watching from a big-screen TV or an iPad right in front of your face, Netflix requires some sort of electronic device to play. Unfortunately, the blue light in these electronics is the form of wavelength perceived most strongly by our brains. In fact, our brains actually interpret it as sunlight, so the more blue light it receives, the more it figures it’s daytime and you should stay awake instead of falling asleep.
Screen time before bed not only makes it harder for you to fall asleep at night, but it makes it tougher to stay alert the following day. Things only get worse if you use Netflix as a form of sleep procrastination.
Binge-watching hurts more than just sleep
Binge-watching isn’t just bad for your sleep. A 2015 study by the University of Texas at Austin found that loneliness, lack of self-control, and depression were correlated with binge-watching TV. Another 2015 study also observed a tendency for binge-watchers to have poor mental and physical health.
Disturbingly, one study found that excessive TV viewing is linked with eight (eight!) of the top causes of death in the U.S., including cancer, heart disease, diabetes, influenza and pneumonia, Parkinson’s disease, and liver disease. The inherent sedentary nature of this fan-favorite hobby distracts you from physical activity.
Researchers found that those who watch 3-4 hours of TV a day (unfortunately a number describing 80% of Americans) are 15% likelier to die from one of these causes, and the risk only goes up from there – reaching odds of 47% for those who watch for 7 or more hours.
How to go on a Netflix binge and get quality sleep
Before you decide to binge-watch, know this: Research shows that show you’re watching is less enjoyable, the faster you watch it. You’re also less likely to remember it. However, if you slow down and choose to savor the content, you’ll get more joy out of it and you won’t miss any details. Plus, your sleep won’t suffer.
Still not willing to kick your binge-watching? That’s understandable. We all need a way to unwind after work, and binge-watching seems to be an especially popular way to do it.
The American Academy of Sleep Medicine has put out their own set of guidelines to keep your binge-watching from wrecking your sleep. We’ve expanded on those below, and included a few of our own top tips.
Follow these to go on a Netflix binge and sleep well.
1. Adjust the light.
Your body uses light as a cue for your sleep-wake cycle. Sunlight is a time for wakefulness, while darkness is a time for sleeping. Do your part to reinforce your circadian rhythms by paying attention to the light in your life.
During the day, get plenty of natural light. Spend some time outside, especially in the earlier part of the day. This will boost your alertness so you’re less tired during the day, but it will also make you sleepier by the time bedtime rolls around.
At night, limit your screen time altogether. If you must binge-watch, turn on your device’s native red-light filter (these filter out those strong blue wavelengths) or download an app that does it for you.
2. Set a firm TV/sleep schedule (and follow it!).
Go to bed and wake up at the same time every day. This helps train your mind and body to be naturally more awake or tired at the appropriate times.
Do the same for your binge-watching. Limit yourself to a certain number of episodes or watch time, and then stick to it. Here’s how to make it easier to avoid temptation:
- Download the episodes you want to watch, then turn off Wifi on your device so you’re limited to just watching those episodes.
- Only allow yourself to watch while you’re doing something productive, such as exercising or cleaning.
- Set aside time on the weekend to binge-watch, instead of making it part of your nightly routine.
- Watch with someone else, so you’re more likely to stay accountable to your schedule.
Set a time to turn off all your electronics, too. Even if you stop binge-watching, if you’re using your phone to check Facebook or read emails, your brain is still getting hit with that blue light. Stop this cycle and turn off all your electronics 60 minutes before bed.
3. Take breaks.
Resist the urge to keep auto-playing. Take a break in between episodes, even if it’s only for a few minutes. By the end of your break, you may find you’re more tired and choose to sleep, or that you want to do something else instead.
Pro tip: turn off “auto-play” in your Netflix settings (and Hulu and Amazon Video, too).
4. Choose your binge content wisely.
Some content is more arousing than others. If you’re binging late at night, try to stay away from high-octane dramas and thrillers and keep it a bit more low-key with a sitcom.
5. Watch where you watch.
Whatever you do, do NOT binge-watch Netflix from your bed. Your bed should be reserved for sleep and sex only.
The more activities you introduce to your sleep environment, the more you confuse your brain into forgetting it’s a place to wind down and fall asleep. If you spend hours binge-watching, your brain may come to associate your bed as a place you lie for hours without falling asleep – and you definitely don’t want that.