How (and Why) Binge-Watching Poses a Threat to Your Sleep

by Martin Reed Patient Advocate

In April 2016, Alejandro “AJ” Fragoso broke the world record for TV binge-watching after remaining glued to the screen for 94 hours. Perhaps unsurprisingly, aside from sleep deprivation, this marathon of TV watching led to acute hallucinations, and involuntary open-eyed "microsleeps."

Although most of us won’t watch TV for such a long stretch, thanks to the proliferation of on-demand streaming services we are binge-watching shows far more frequently — and a 2017 study published in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine suggests this can have a negative effect on our sleep.

What is binge-watching?

Binge-watching or binge-viewing is typically defined as watching more than one episode of the same TV show in one sitting.

The 2017 study recruited 423 individuals between 18 and 25 years of age. Researchers chose this age group since they were deemed more likely to binge-watch and more sensitive to risk behaviors. None of the participants had a clinical history of sleep problems.

The study used questionnaires to measure binge-viewing as well as:

Those who identified as binge-watchers (based on whether they watched multiple consecutive episodes of the same television show in one sitting) were asked how often they binge-watched, the duration of an average binge-watching session, and the number of episodes they usually watched.

How common is binge-watching?

Eighty percent of participants admitted to binge-watching TV. In the month before the study:

  • 39.6 percent binge-watched just once

  • 28.4 percent binge-watched a few times

  • 11.7 percent binge-watched once a week

  • 13.5 percent binge-watched a few times a week

  • 6.7 percent binge-watched almost every day

More than half of all binge-watchers watched three to four episodes in one sitting. One-quarter watched two episodes, 16 percent watched five to six episodes, and just under six percent watched more than six episodes in a sitting.

Researchers found the average binge-watching session to be three hours and eight minutes. Men were found to binge-watch less often than women (although binge-watching sessions were longer among men).

The effect of binge-watching on sleep

The study found that those who identified as binge-watchers were 98 percent more likely to have poor sleep quality compared to those who did not binge-watch — and that almost one in three cases of poor sleep quality were directly attributable to binge-watching.

Researchers also found that those who binge-watched more frequently reported:

  • Poorer sleep quality

  • More daytime fatigue

  • More insomnia symptoms

Why does binge-watching TV harm sleep?

The authors of the study determined that binge-watching TV led to cognitive pre-sleep arousal and this was to blame for the negative effect on sleep quality. In other words, binge-watching was found to keep the mind active and alert — and this is what made it harder for participants to fall asleep.

Researchers suggested that a stronger sense of involvement in the narrative and characters may be formed when watching more than one episode at a time — and this could explain the high levels of cognitive arousal and sleep difficulties associated with binge-watching.

The authors also suggested that the most binge-worthy shows tend to involve complex narratives and storylines that leave viewers thinking about episodes long after they end — and this leads to a longer "cooling-off" period for the brain after switching off the TV.

How to avoid binge-watching to improve your sleep

If you suffer from poor sleep quality, you may have to take steps to deliberately avoid binge-watching — researchers pointed to one study that found 71 percent of binge-watching was unintentional.

If you watch TV at night, limit yourself to a set amount of viewing time, consider switching off the TV an hour before bed to allow your mind to unwind — and keep the television out of the bedroom!

Martin Reed
Meet Our Writer
Martin Reed

Martin is the creator of Insomnia Coach, an eight-week course that combines online sleep education with individual sleep coaching. His course helps clients improve their sleep so they can enjoy a better life with more energy and start each day feeling happy, healthy, rested, and refreshed. Martin also runs a free sleep training course that has helped over 5,000 insomniacs. He holds a master’s degree in health and wellness education and studied clinical sleep health at the University of Delaware.