- Watching episode after episode of a TV show is called “binge-watching.” A new scientific study shows regular binges can damage your health. It is unrealistic to expect people to stop binge-watching, but you can make the effort to stop an hour before you go to bed, or only have a long session at the weekends.
Watching endless episodes of a show is a fairly recent phenomenon. You used to have to wait a week for the latest episodes, but on-demand services like Netflix and Amazon Prime mean you can watch pretty much anything whenever you want.
But a recent study published in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine found that this binge-watching behaviour could actually be bad for us.
The research involved 423 people aged 18 to 25, who were asked to complete an online survey on their TV habits, sleep quality, fatigue, insomnia, and pre-sleep alertness.
A TV binge was defined as “watching multiple consecutive episodes of the same television show in one sitting on a screen, be it a television, laptop, computer or tablet.”
Eight out of 10 participants identified themselves as a binge-watcher, with 20% binge-watching at least a few times a week over the previous month. Over half (52%) of those who admitted to binge-watching viewed three to four episodes in one sitting, with an average session lasting 3 hours and 8 minutes.
Binge-watchers reported more fatigue, insomnia symptoms, poorer sleep quality, and feeling more alert before going to sleep. Overall, those who binge-watch had 98% more chance of having poor-quality sleep than those who didn’t.
“Binge-able shows often have a complex narrative structure that makes viewers become completely immersed into the story,” said a statement from co-author Professor Jan Van den Bulck, of the Department of Communication Studies at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.
“This intense engagement with television content could require a longer period to ‘cool down’ before going to sleep, thus affecting sleep overall.”
According to Robert Oexman, director of the Sleep to Live Institute, problems caused by binge-watching could go even deeper than increased alertness.
“What we now have to understand is what we think may be causing that change in sleep quality, both inability to fall asleep and poor quality of sleep,” he told Business Insider. “You might think you’re jacked up a bit, so maybe that explains why they can’t fall asleep, but there’s other things that are going on.”
Oexman added that the age group the study looked at is usually extremely good at sleeping, so if they are having trouble then it’s a real problem.
Looking at bright screens, especially at night can wreak havoc on your biology, because it is one of the cues that helps maintain our circadian rhythm, or body clock (these cues are also known as zeitgebers).
When it gets dark, our bodies start to prepare for sleep, but bright lights can trick our brains into thinking it’s still daytime.
“What happens when you watch television shows, is you watch bright devices like computer screens, TV screens, and that bright light reduces our ability to secrete melatonin,” Oexman said.
“In the evening, when most binge watching occurs, we should be starting to secrete melatonin – a hormone that prepares ourselves for sleep – but by watching these bright-lit screens, it reduces our ability to secrete melatonin, and makes it harder to fall asleep. It also reduces the amount of sleep you get once you do fall asleep.”
It’s not just about being sleepy
You may think you can counteract the effects of feeling a little groggy in the morning by waking yourself up with caffeine, but Oexman says this isn’t the case. In fact, you may see negative long-term effects after as little as two weeks.
“After a couple of weeks of not getting good-quality sleep, you see a decrease in alertness, you don’t function at a level you should – being able to maintain alertness in the office, being able to maintain alertness behind the wheel of a car,” he said.
“Our performance begins to decrease, we see changes in our immune system, we don’t fight off colds and other viruses as well; we see changes in cognitive thinking, where we can’t process information, and can’t learn new information as well; we start seeing increased risk in long term of obesity from changes in leptin and ghrelin; we see increased risk of heart disease; we see an increased risk of stroke; we see increased risk of cancer… So the long-term consequences of doing this, they are pretty detrimental to our health.”
Oexman added that people often brush off symptoms of things like insomnia, and associate their health problems with something – anything – other than sleep quality. For example, if you start getting colds more often, you’ll probably blame it on a lower immune system, genetics, diet, or lack of exercise before you think it could be something to do with not getting enough sleep.
“All those symptoms, we have a tendency to blame them on other things in our environment or behaviour, or we say, oh I’m just genetically predisposed to heart disease therefore it’s genetics. In fact, it’s just because we’re not getting the sleep we need,” he said.
Here’s the solution
People clearly aren’t going to stop watching their shows, so how do we start combat this binge-watching addiction? Oexman says the best way to do it is on the weekend, and early in the day instead of the evenings.
“One of the interventions the researchers talked about is to limit to 2 or 3 shows a night, but the problem with that is we have this thing called the pause button,” he said. “So just because we’re going to limit it to three shows, that doesn’t mean three hours. That could in fact last 5 or 6 hours, because I hit the pause button to go get a snack, or I need to chat with a friend on the phone, cook a meal, or anything else.”
Instead, he says binge-watching should ideally occur before 6 p.m. in the evening. If that’s not possible, he says you should at least stop watching shows an hour before you start getting ready for bed.
“If you choose to do it during the week, shut it down an hour before, because you will probably need to do some kind of relaxation techniques, and it’s probably not best to start taking sleeping medicine so that you can binge-watch television shows,” Oexman said. “That’s not the best thing you could do for your health.”
The generation divide isn’t as wide as you might think
Binge-watching could be considered a young person problem, since younger people may be more in tune with new ways to consume media. However, Oexman said that the habit is actually increasing across the board.
“It’s not only young people who are binge watching – we’re starting to see it creep up into the older population too,” he said.
“The danger with that is that young people recover easier, but they also just in general sleep better than an older population. I would predict that if this study was done on people who were age 55 to 70, then what we would see is even poorer quality of sleep associated with binge-watching.”
Also, the generation the study looked at will get older one day too, and if they continue to binge-watch the problems associated could become more and more apparent.
“People don’t necessarily see the problem with what they’re doing,” Oexman said. “They see it as a temporary thing, they can stop off at Starbucks get a coffee and I’ll be okay. But it’s not. The health consequences go on and on.”