Binging on Netflix or Hulu and Its Effects on Sleep

Lying in bed and binge-watching shows on Netflix or Hulu seem like an integral part of your daily (or nightly) routine, but it shouldn’t be. Research suggests that binge-watching television shows (watching two or more episodes in one viewing session) is damaging your health. As a health and sleep specialist puts it, “sleep and binge-watching […]

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Lying in bed and binge-watching shows on Netflix or Hulu seem like an integral part of your daily (or nightly) routine, but it shouldn’t be.

Research suggests that binge-watching television shows (watching two or more episodes in one viewing session) is damaging your health. As a health and sleep specialist puts it, “sleep and binge-watching are at odds with each other.” A rivalry is blossoming as Netflix has declared war on sleep when the streaming giant called sleep its greatest enemy.

The Battle between Sleep and Streaming

Streaming services such as Netflix and Hulu have been welcomed with open arms by the masses. Do even remember that in the olden days, people had to wait an entire week – that’s seven whole days – to see what happened next to our daring protagonist? Oh, the humanity! Now it’s easy as pie to blow through an entire season as soon as it releases. Don’t forget your snacks.

For the media-consuming public, this has become the new norm. When all fifteen episodes of the final season of Arrested Development became streamable, approximately 10% of viewers watched the entire season within 24 hours of its release. When the second season of Stranger Things was released, 361,000 people tuned in to watch all nine episodes on the first day. Guilty as charged.

It seems that this behavior isn’t going away anytime soon. A survey conducted by Netflix found that 61% of its users regularly watch two to six episodes in one sitting. The same study reveals that Netflix users prefer to binge-watch shows rather than take their time as 73% of the participants in the study reported to have positive feelings when binge-watching.

Binge-watching can actually harm our sleep duration and its quality. Sleep is necessary for maintaining the health of our bodies and minds. Lack of sleep can lead to a slew of mental health issues including anxiety and depression.

A new study conducted by scientists from the University of Michigan and the University of Leuven in Belgium sought to investigate the connection between binge-watching habits and the consequences they had on sleep patterns. Strong links between binge-watching and sleep problems were found: 1 in 3 sleepers experienced poor quality rest due to binge-watching as well as showing signs of insomnia and fatigue. These results were unanimously conclusive as the same signs were not present in those with healthier TV watching habits.

How Binge-Watching Disrupts Sleep

Even though binge-watching is a relatively new phenomenon there is a significant amount of research supporting its negative effects.

Binge watching can create a drug-like effect on our brain, triggering similar feelings  to addiction. During binge-watching sessions, we are immersed in worlds and storylines that we find enjoyable. This immersion leads our brains to release dopamine, the hormone associated with pleasure. According to Dr. Renee Carr, a clinical psychologist, the continuous release of this hormone reinforces continued engagement with the activity. Dopamine can be like a little devil on our shoulder. Even if we’re doing something bad dopamine tells us to “keep going!” if it feels nice. It’s like cheating on a diet – a cheeky donut really hurts so good.  

Binge-watching your favorite show may give you a high similar to drug use. “Your body does not discriminate against pleasure. It can become addicted to any activity or substance that constantly produces dopamine,” Dr. Carr explains.

In a survey conducted by Amerisleep, it was found that an average of 46% of people stay up late watching Netflix or other similar streaming services before bed. They cited the addictive nature of their favorite series as the reason why they ultimately ended up losing sleep and the autoplay feature is no help. In fact, autoplay makes easier to keep going than to stop as the act of turning off Netflix would expend a modicum more of energy than to do nothing at all and keep viewing.

The same study found that sleep deprivation often came as a result of mental stimulation due to extended viewing sessions in the evenings, a condition known as “pre-sleep arousal.”

Continuous exposure to addictive content and its many addictive elements such as engaging storylines, lovable characters, beautiful imagery, and thought-provoking plot twists can stimulate brain activity and increase alertness. This continued exposure to stimuli creates enough “pre-sleep arousal” to remove any feelings of sleepiness, which gives rise to the “just one more episode until I feel tired” situation. This puts you in a cycle of arousal that disrupts your ability to get to bed.

But it’s more than just brain stimulation that keeps us up. Dr. Gayani DeSilva, a psychiatrist at Laguna Family Health Center in California explains that as we continue to immerse ourselves in the stories they tell, the more we feel attached because our brains interpret these signals as real memories. This form of character involvement, known as “identification,” leads us to feelings of empathy for characters we can relate to, or want to relate to, their circumstances and experiences, which make us more likely to binge-watch a show in its entirety.

Feeling Blue?

More than the show itself, there is one key way binge-watching your favorite on-demand TV shows can interfere with your sleep, and that is blue light.

Whichever device you’re streaming from, whether it’s from your phone, iPad, or big-screen smart TV, blue light is emitted. It is the strongest and brightest wavelength for visible light, which gives it the ability to pierce our retinas more intensely. When this light is received by our eyes it’s perceived by our brains as sunlight. This gives us/our brains an impression that it’s daytime, which triggers a “stay awake” signal.

It’s Time to Shut Down

At the end of the day, we want to relax. Most of the time we want to stare at our TVs to de-stress and let our brains rest from a hard day at work. But it’s unknowingly to you having the opposite effect. It’s actually stimulating your brain even more. For a good night’s sleep consider turning off your devices and unwinding in a more “old fashioned way,” if you will. Read a book, drink a cup of tea, or simply turn off the lights and close your eyes. You will feel relaxed and tuckered out more quickly than you may think.

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