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Is Binge Watching Costing You Sleep?

Winter has arrived with a vengeance in many parts of the country. During this time of year, treacherous travel conditions due to snow or ice can force people to remain at home. And even if the roads are clear, cold weather keeps people inside more than usual. In order to keep cabin fever at bay, people frequently turn to television watching to occupy their time. With the advent of streaming services such as Netflix or Amazon, it is now possible to watch multiple episodes of a show in one sitting, a phenomenon that has been labelled “binge watching.” Network television is now offering the opportunity to watch back-to-back episodes of one particular show in one sitting, also known as a “marathon”. And even without these opportunities, digital video recorders allow viewers to record multiple episodes of one or more shows and then watch them all in one sitting.

Can’t stop watching?

With the growing popularity of streaming service comes more opportunity to binge.

Binge viewing can be a good way to occupy an evening, but sometimes people become so engrossed in a show that they stay up later than intended, just to see what happens next. Also, after watching for hours people may find it difficult to get to sleep when they finally do turn the show off, ending up sleep deprived the next day. This brings to mind a number of questions. What exactly is binge viewing? Is all binge viewing problematic? What is the relationship between binge viewing and insomnia?

Binge watching study

An interesting scientific investigation was recently published in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine that attempted to answer some of these questions. The study is titled “Binge Viewing, Sleep, and the Role of Pre-Sleep Arousal”, authored by Liese Exelmans of the Leuvens School for Mass Communications Research in Belgium and Jan Van den Bulck of the Department of Communications Studies at the University of Michigan. The goal of the study was to determine the prevalence of binge viewing and to see how it was associated with sleep. They also examined arousal as an underlying mechanism of any difficulty sleeping associated with binge viewing.

The study was focused on young adults ages 18-25 years old and was conducted using an on-line survey assessing regular television as well as binge viewing. It also used a number of validated questionnaires assessing sleep quality, fatigue, insomnia, and pre-sleep arousal. A total of 423 subjects completed the survey and 80.6% self-identified as binge viewers. Approximately one fifth of these binge viewers reported that they had binge viewed a few times a week over the past month.

Binge viewing has been examined in previous research using a variety of definitions that focused on the number of episodes watched in one sitting. This recent investigation changed the focus somewhat, and defined a “binge” as “watching multiple consecutive episodes of the same television show in one sitting on a screen”. This approach recognizes that binge viewing may take place on a television or computer screen. The results of the survey show that the average binge viewing session was 3 hours and 8 minutes long, but sessions were sometimes as short as an hour and a half, or as long as almost 5 hours. Men tended to binge view less frequently than women, though when they did, the viewing sessions were typically longer.

Results of binge watching

Overall, binge viewers reported poorer sleep quality and fatigue. In addition, poorer sleep quality was associated with insomnia as well as pre-sleep cognitive arousal, which is a state of thinking and mental stimulation. The pre-sleep arousal questionnaire results indicated that cognitive pre-sleep arousal explained the underlying mechanism for the effects of binge viewing on sleep. It may be that people have a more difficult time winding down and shutting their mind off after binge viewing, symptoms which are often associated with insomnia. Sleep loss can also certainly be a contributor to fatigue. Current thinking in the sleep medicine scientific community focuses on arousal, measured in a variety of ways, as being the underlying mechanism for many instances of difficulty sleeping.

Watching television is a popular and enjoyable activity, and people often watch to wind down in the evening before bedtime. I have heard people report that they used to watch the opening monologue of the Tonight show and then turn off the set and go to bed, but for many, viewing habits have changed over time. Is binge watching always bad for your sleep? How much binge watching is problematic? This study shows that binge viewing can be associated with poorer sleep quality, fatigue, and increased insomnia. The reason behind this association appears to be cognitive arousal or the inability to shut down your thoughts for the night. If you are having difficulty sleeping, binge watching may be a contributing factor. If that is the case, good sleep hygiene suggests keeping a regular bedtime and eliminating binge watching.


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