Is Binge-Watching Keeping You Up at Night?

During the pandemic, binge-watching series across a variety of streaming services has become a common pastime for many people. While it may be entertaining to watch back-to-back episodes of programs that you enjoy, some research suggests that binge-watching may negatively affect sleep quality in certain people differently than simply watching long blocks of television.

So what’s the difference between binge-watching and “regular” watching of long blocks of TV? Regular-watching TV refers to watching a variety of shows over a set period of time, rather than watching episodes of the same show back-to-back. Regular-watching doesn’t typically involve the viewer becoming super-invested in what’s happening to one cast of characters, because the shows are changing. On the other hand, when you binge-watch, you’re watching several episodes in a row because you’re excited to see what happens next. 

While not all binge-watching is problematic, it may lead to sleep problems. Research has found that people who frequently binge-watched episodes were more likely to experience poorer sleep quality and daytime sleepiness than people who watched TV without binge-watching. The research also found that binge-watchers became more emotionally invested in characters and were more likely to think about plot lines and other exciting details at bedtime, rather than unwinding and falling asleep. 

“I think bingeing becomes an issue when one of two things occur,” says study author Jan Van den Bulck, PhD, DSc, professor of communication and media at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. “The first is trouble with self-control. This happens when we watch more than we want, against our better judgment… The other way [is] about cognitive arousal. That is a term that simply means our mind goes in overdrive.” Cognitive arousal is what happens when you stay awake because you are so focused on your thoughts, whether you are worrying about something, rehashing things that happened to you that day, or, in the case of binge-watching, thinking about what happened in episodes.

According to the research, those who binge-watched were more likely to experience cognitive arousal when they went to bed, which prevented them from falling asleep, leading to poorer sleep quality and daytime sleepiness. On the other hand, when people regular-watched, as opposed to bingeing, they did not experience this type of cognitive arousal, thinking about plots and characters, and they didn’t have trouble falling asleep or feeling tired the next day.  

Additional research has suggested that people who binge-watch may be more impulsive, which may make it harder to stop viewing after just an episode or two. The researchers found that being impulsive was associated with neglecting one’s duties or responsibilities, as well as loss of control. When people impulsively binge-watch TV, it may be at the expense of other things, such as going to sleep at bedtime. 

Your bingeing tendency may be influenced by the time of day. “Let’s say it is a work night and you wanted to watch one, maximum two, episodes of your favorite show,” Van den Bulck says. “Late at night, our levels of self-control are at their lowest. Imagine really enjoying a show, really being hooked by the cliffhanger—did my favorite character die, or didn’t she?—and then getting four seconds to make up your mind about going to bed before your streaming service takes you to an exciting new episode, with a new cliffhanger at the end. That is how we get sucked into a binge.”

Essentially, the two main reasons why binge-watching impacts sleep include that lowered sense of self-control, which encourages people to watch for longer than they may have wanted to, and the other is the increased cognitive arousal, making them lie awake thinking about what will happen next (especially if the episode ended on a cliffhanger!). 

Of course, there’s a lovely sense of escapism that comes with being transported into the worlds of our favorite characters. And there’s nothing wrong with giving in to that occasionally—as long as it’s not negatively impacting your sleep on a regular basis. If binge-watching is negatively impacting your sleep, you may want to rethink your viewing habits. Try these ideas:

Shift the timing of your binges. Move your TV watching earlier in the day. You may be less likely to stop after a predetermined number of episodes. You’ll also have more time to think about plot lines during the afternoon and evening, rather than while lying in bed.

“You may think that watching a show is relaxing, but if it is too scary or too distracting, you may not get what you want, and that may end up negatively affecting your sleep,” Van den Bulck says.

Exercise while bingeing. Walk on your treadmill or ride a stationary bike while watching binge-worthy series. The exercise may help you feel tired at bedtime, and you may stop after an episode or two, if you only watch while working out.

“Two years ago, I bought a good indoor rower and told myself I am allowed to watch whatever I want when I am on that machine, and it has helped me to row every day for 45 minutes with no feelings of guilt and no boredom,” Van den Bulck says. “The cliffhangers work to my advantage: it makes me want to row more the next day.”

Watch in small bites. If you don’t have a goal in mind before watching, you may view more episodes than you want.

“This is a lot like the people who take a big bag of potato chips but tell themselves they’ll only eat a tiny amount,” Van den Bulck says. “Any challenge to your self-control means you eat the whole bag. The same happens with binge-viewing and self-control.”

Decide ahead of time on a finite number of episodes per day. Keep track, and walk away when you reach your limit.

Find a satisfying stopping point. Sometimes, you can’t help but watch another episode to find out what happens. If you give in, stop as soon as your curiosity has been satisfied.

“There is no moral obligation to watch a TV show from beginning to end, so if you want to find out whether your hero really died at the end of an episode, watch the beginning of the next episode,” Van den Bulck says. “There is always a quiet moment where the hero travels, or where two detectives chat about their divorce, or whatever. That is a good point to stop, and avoid the next cliffhanger. You can watch more tomorrow without giving anything important up right now.”

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