Binge-watch a full season of your favorite television series and a night of bad sleep is bound to follow, new research suggests.
The finding stems from a new survey that looked at TV viewing habits and sleep histories among more than 420 people between the ages of 18 and 25.
“Our research indicates that regular TV viewing—switching from one show to another—has no association with sleep or fatigue, while binge-viewing—consuming multiple episodes of the same content—does,” said study author Liese Exelmans.
Exelmans, a doctoral researcher at the University of Leuven’s School of Mass Communication Research in Belgium, reported her team’s findings in the current issue of the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine.
After sifting through the survey results, researchers found that more than 4 in 5 respondents described themselves as binge-watchers. About a fifth of those said they had binge-watched at least a few times each week over the month leading up to the survey, while nearly 7 percent said they had done so almost every day over the prior 30 days.
Most of those surveyed said they were meeting current recommendations that advise all adults to get between seven to nine hours of sleep each night. On average, the respondents said they were racking up a little over seven and a half hours of sleep a night.
But the research team also found that those who binge-watched were ultimately experiencing worse quality sleep than those who did not—even if they were logging a reasonable amount of sleep. They also reported greater fatigue compared to non-binge viewers.
“We think that being engaged with the same content for hours on end may leave viewers thinking about the show, what happened, and what will happen next,” Exelmans said. This may increase arousal, boost an individual’s heartbeat, and lead to a longer “cool-down” period before a viewer is actually able to fall asleep, she said.
The result: worse sleep and an increased risk for being fatigued the next day.
So what are young binge viewers to do? Those who think their TV habits might be impinging upon their sleep should “make a timeline and try to adhere it,” Exelmans said.
“If it is a matter of self-control, there are ways to improve that,” she said, noting that establishing a bedtime schedule and even setting a bedtime alarm can be helpful.
“This comes down to establishing habits, which can be challenging,” Exelmans said, “but once you manage to habitualize your evening routine, chances are good you’ll stick to it.”
Dr. Brian Primack directs the University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Research on Media, Technology and Health. He suggested establishing new and enjoyable TV viewing routines to replace the binge-watching habit.
“For example,” he said, “it can be enjoyable to get together with groups and watch at a particular time each week. This combines the social benefits of watching together, letting the experience last over a longer period of time, and also potentially getting better sleep.”
Sarah Erickson, an assistant professor of communication at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas, stressed that the survey doesn’t prove that binge-watching causes worse sleep, but rather that it’s associated with poor slumber.
“For example,” she said, “someone with a high-stress job might come home after a long day and binge-watch as a form of escape or relaxation and then also sleep poorly. But it could be the stress causing both the desire to binge-watch and the poor sleep quality.”
Still, Erickson acknowledged that binge-watching “has become a regular ritual in many of our media diets,” and is not likely to go away anytime soon.
“What we can do, though, is keep in mind the advice of sleep researchers to maintain consistent sleep schedules and try to introduce a buffer of time between TV viewing and going to bed,” she said.
“Ultimately, moderation seems likely to be the key to continued enjoyment of engaging narratives like ‘House of Cards,’ and continued maintenance of healthy sleep patterns,” Erickson added.