Living in the age of “peak TV” means our favorite shows are never out of arm’s reach.
You can simply pick up your personal device and mainline the last season of “Game of Thrones.”
While this may be good news for die-hard fans, scientists have been concerned about how these viewing habits can affect our health and, specifically, our sleep.
Researchers from the Leuven School for Mass Communication Research in Belgium, along with the University of Michigan, took to Facebook to find people ages of 18 to 25 to see how intense program viewing sessions were associated with sleep quality.
They had 423 people finish questionnaires on the topic, and then analyzed the results.
The team quizzed the subjects about their levels of fatigue, insomnia, and “pre-sleep arousal,” meaning how alert they felt mentally or physically when trying to sleep.
Their recent study published in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine concluded that nearly double the amount of binge watchers reported poor sleep quality compared with people who didn’t binge-watch.
The researchers reported that approximately 80 percent of the subjects reported binge-watching TV shows, defined as watching multiple episodes of a show back-to-back.
The binge viewers spent an average of 3 hours and 8 minutes on a binge session, and 52 percent reported watching an average of three to four episodes in one sitting.
Another 16 percent reported watching an average of five to six episodes per session.
The people who reported binge-watching were 98 percent more likely to report poor sleep quality compared with those who watched one episode per sitting, according to the findings.
Why binge watching may affect sleep
While binge-watching was associated with worse sleep, simply watching television in the two hours before going bed was not associated with poor sleep quality in the same way, according to the study findings.
“A possible explanation might be that binge-viewing leads to a stronger sense of involvement into the narrative and identification with its characters than does regular viewing,” the authors said. “This would also explain why regular bedtime television viewing was not related to our sleep indicators or arousal measure.”
The researchers essentially found that the more engaging the show, the worse it could be for your sleep.
“The narrative complexity in these shows leaves viewers thinking about episodes and their sequel after viewing them,” the authors wrote. “This prolongs sleep onset or, in other words, requires a longer period to ‘cool down’ before going to sleep, thus affecting sleep overall.”
The study authors did clarify that there were limitations to the study since they saw only correlation between binge-watching, and not evidence of causation, or that binge-watching definitively causes poor sleep.
They also said more study would need to be done on groups that are more diverse than the young population recruited via Facebook to prove these findings.
Your TV vs. your computer
Dr. Steven Feinsilver, the director of sleep medicine at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York, said he thought the study was clever, but was not surprised by the findings.
“We're a 24-hour society and we didn't used to be,” Feinsilver told Healthline. “When I was growing up, at 11 p.m. at night there was a test banner... TV simply went off at night.”
Feinsilver explained that humans aren’t designed to shift gears so quickly that they can go straight from watching an intense episode to a restful sleep.
He compared it to people who work a 3 p.m. to 11 p.m. shift, and don’t understand why they can’t fall asleep as soon as they walk in the door.
“Your brain doesn’t go from full speed to off,” Feinsilver said.
Feinsilver said for those of us who have a hard time of breaking binge-watching habits there are some key tips to at least mitigate potential effects of too much TV.
He recommends sticking with watching shows on a television instead of the computer.
“Computers, cell phones, it’s not only that they have blue light problem,” he said. “I think it's much more interactive. You don't watch your computer, you interact with it.”
Feinsilver said people should spend the last hour before they go to bed doing relaxing activities to help prime them to go to sleep.
However, Feinsilver says this advice applies mainly to people who aren’t getting good sleep and don’t feel well rested.
“There are rules for good sleep,” Feinsilver said. But “you can break them all and it’s OK if you’re sleeping.”