Your relationship with screens at bedtime is complicated, experts say.
For many of us, few things put us to sleep faster than streaming a TV show or movie that we’ve watched dozens—OK, hundreds—of times, setting the volume on low, and listening to the hum of quirky dialogue that we can (literally) recite in our sleep.
But with all of the “blue light” this and “circadian rhythm” that hitting your newsfeeds, you’ve probably wondered about the effect that snoozing in front of the tube can have on your body and brain. Have you been bathing yourself in so much blue light that your body’s melatonin reserve is as dry as the Sahara? Or, since your brain scrolls through everything you’ve ever done wrong in your life the second your head hits the pillow, is using your TV as a sedative the lesser of two evils? We went to the experts to find out.
Falling asleep in front of the TV is actually pretty common, but there’s not a lot of research on using it as a sleep aid.
According to a National Sleep Foundation poll, 60% of Americans watch TV right before falling asleep. A survey by LG Electronics reported that 61% fall asleep with the TV on. For some, it’s simply a nightly ritual, says Vikas Jain, MD, sleep medicine specialist at Northwestern Medicine Central DuPage Hospital in Illinois. But for others, they find the background noise relaxing or claim it helps them fall asleep.
But the scientific intel that’s available so far seems to be a mixed bag: One study published in the journal Behavioral Sleep Medicine found that using media of any kind as a sleep aid put a damper on sleep quality, while another linked internet use to worse sleep quality, but not television use. “In my opinion, zoning out in front of the TV further promotes poor sleep hygiene,” says Chris Brantner, certified sleep science coach at SleepZoo.com. “However, an argument can be made that there are some positives to doing so.” (Interrupting the traffic jam of thoughts keeping you awake, for one.)
The background noise might help you fall asleep faster.
When you set the volume loud enough to drown out the thoughts bombarding your racing mind, but not so loud that it prevents your body from going into sleep mode, the effect might be similar to using a white noise machine, in that the ambient noise can help decrease the amount of time it takes you to fall asleep, says Dr. Jain.
Plus, streaming a TV episode or movie that you’ve already seen multiple times can offer a sense of familiarity and comfort, making it less likely than a new binge-worthy show to trigger an emotional response that will keep you awake, says Dr. Jain. This is especially the case if what you’re watching is lighter in nature (think: sitcoms or Hallmark movies).
The quality of the shuteye you score, however, can be easily compromised.
Falling asleep with your TV on means you’re also soaking in blue light from electronics. This can mess with the quality of your sleep by suppressing production of melatonin (the hormone that keeps your sleep/wake cycle in check), and it can delay sleep onset (the amount of time it takes you to fall asleep), says Dr. Jain.
Between the flickering of the screen and the chance that whatever's on next could be more stimulating content, you might linger in the lighter sleep stages—causing you to miss out on some of the important restorative work the body does during sleep, such as consolidating memories and healing muscles.
Tweaking your pre-sleep TV habits might help lessen their negative effects.
Watching TV on an actual television—as opposed to a tablet or phone that’s right in front of your face—may lessen the amount of blue light you’re subjected to, says Brantner. (Another option might be to turn away from the screen and only listen to the audio.) Disabling autoplay may also be helpful in boosting sleep quality: “It lowers the chances that your sleep will be disrupted in the lighter stages by flickering lights and changes in sound,” he says. You could even go so far as to set your TV to turn off automatically at a certain time in order to cut out light after you go to sleep.
Make sure you don't become too dependent on TV as a sleep aid, either. Reinforcing the association between TV and sleep can make it difficult to drift off without it, says Dr. Jain, especially in environments where you don’t have access (say, during a power outage or camping trip).
One strategy might be to slowly whittle down your TV use and institute new calming bedtime behaviors like reading, meditating, or journaling, says Brantner. Having a variety of sleep-promoting options up your sleeve can help you steer clear of becoming too reliant on any one habit, which might increase your chances of scoring a quality night’s sleep no matter the environment you’re snoozing in.
The bottom line?
Using your TV as a sleep aid might not be the best way to promote good sleep hygiene. But if the alternative is full-on sleep deprivation, it may be better than nothing—although more research needs to be done to know for sure.
“Since anxiety and the inability to quiet thoughts is one of the primary reasons people have trouble sleeping, it stands to reason that if the TV helps you calm down, you may as well use it to get to sleep,” says Brantner. In other words, Netflix and actually chill.