If you’ve ever pushed back your bedtime to watch just one more episode of Orange Is the New Black, or lay in bed wide-eyed after streaming three exhilarating hours of Game of Thrones, this new research probably won’t surprise you. A new study in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine is the first to link binge-watching with poorer sleep quality, more fatigue, and increased insomnia.
Not only does on-demand TV tempt us to keep watching episode after episode, say the study’s authors, but the shows are also designed to draw us in, boost suspense, and emotionally invest in plotlines and characters. This can lead to excitement and increased arousal, the research shows, which can translate into “increased cognitive alertness” and an inability to get the shuteye you need.
The study involved 423 young adults, ages 18 to 25, who completed online surveys about how often they watched television, both conventional TV and streaming services. They were also asked how frequently they “binge-watched” shows, defined as watching multiple consecutive episodes of the same show in one sitting, on any type of screen. They also answered questions about their sleep quality and how tired (or alert) they felt throughout the day.
More than 80% of the participants identified themselves as binge watchers, with 20% of that group binge-watching at least a few times a week in the previous month. A little more than half of binge-watchers said they tended to view three to four episodes in one sitting, and the average binge session was just over 3 hours. (Men binged less frequently than women, but their viewing sessions were nearly twice as long on average.)
As the study authors suspected, the participants who identified as binge-watchers reported more fatigue, more symptoms of insomnia, and greater alertness prior to going to sleep. And compared to non-bingers, they had a 98% increased risk of having poor sleep quality.
Interestingly, no relationship was found between sleep problems and regular television watching, during which viewers typically switch from one program to another.
Co-author Jan Van den Bulck, PhD, professor of communication studies at the University of Michigan, says his study does not prove that binge-watching directly affects sleep quality, but it provides good evidence that the two are linked. There are several ways in which streaming shows might keep us from scoring slumber, he adds.
First, it’s known that blue light before bed is not good for sleep patterns, Van den Bulck says—although he points out that television viewing in general is usually not one of the biggest offenders of sleep disturbance in other research. “Whether regular television viewing has much effect on sleep is debated,” the authors wrote in their study.
But binge-watching has its own set of potentially sleep-wrecking qualities, Van den Bulck adds. “When you watch a show on regular TV and it’s over, you have to wait until next week to see the next episode,” he says. “Just like when you go to the gym, you stop working out when your body has had enough; the dumbbells aren’t egging you on to do more.”
Streaming services, however, tease us to play episode after episode, often only giving us a few seconds to decide whether we should keep going. “The episode ends, a character may or may not have died, and we’re hooked,” he says. In this way, streaming television is a lot like social media—where we often go to check on one status or photo, and end up losing an hour.