It’s Sunday night. You’re curled up on the couch watching your eighth consecutive episode of the Netflix series everyone's currently obsessed with, repeating the mantra of “Just one more” until your eyelids start to grow heavy, your vision blurs, your head sags…then you jolt awake, haul your body to the bedroom, and crash for the evening. Sound familiar? Probably. After all, binge-watching before bed is as American as apple pie: 95 percent of us report watching something on a screen in the hour before bed, and for more than 60 percent of us, that screen is a television. And why not? It’s our most beloved way to wind down, practically default at this point, and why should we change? Perhaps because 60 percent of us also report some kind of sleeping problem every night. Be it waking intermittently, waking too early, or feeling unrefreshed in the morning. Our treasured TV habit might be why.
Watching TV before bed disrupts your hormones.
Our bodies aren’t used to this. A hundred years ago, nobody was gazing at screens for any amount of time during the day. The second half of the 20th century saw artificial light sources quadruple as our sleep quality dipped. The reason might be hormonal: sitting in front of screens appears to trick the body into believing it’s still daytime, as the light impairs the secretion of the hormone melatonin, which is really important for quality sleep. One study even showed a 22 percent decrease in melatonin among people engaged with screens in the hours before bed, and the effect is especially pronounced in younger people.
Watching TV makes you go to sleep later.
Let’s say you get six hours of sleep. If you needed eight hours of sleep per night (and you almost certainly do), then you have a “sleep debt” of two hours. A lot of people unfortunately never balance their sleep debt, because they get less than seven hours of sleep per night, but a 2009 study of 21,475 Americans in the journal Sleep suggested that cutting pre-bedtime TV is the number one way to reduce our sleep debt. That is to say, we keep ourselves awake to watch television. If we swore off that final hour of channel surfing, it’s likely we would simply go to sleep instead of filling that time with something else—which is exactly what we should be doing.
Watching TV makes it harder to go to sleep.
It’s a matter of cognitive stimulation: flashing colors, other people’s voices, engaging storylines, breaking news, all of this and more is what you encounter with a flickering TV set—and it’s the total opposite of what you need as your day is winding down.
Despite how easy it can be to fall asleep right there on the couch, television is still one of the most stimulating activities you can undertake without actually moving, and the firing of neurons and electrical activity taking place in the brain can wind up the nervous system. Instead, seek out activities that help you wind down. Read fiction or meditate before you go to sleep, and kill all electronics at least half an hour before lights out. In the day’s final hour, let calmness call the shots.