A new survey from the American Academy of Sleep Medicine (AASM) found that 88% of U.S. adults lose sleep due to staying up late to watch multiple episodes of a show. This number jumps to 95% for 18 to 44 year olds. Although guilt, frustration and worry may stem from binging -- resulting in even less sleep -- the same survey notes people rank sleep as their second most important priority. Why do Americans continue this behavior and what can people do about it?
“Many people think they need something distracting to fall asleep,” said Carolyn Burke, with The Sleep Advisor. “Maybe they have sleep anxiety or anxiety over other aspects of their lives that creep out most when they are trying to rest. Who wants to think about the bills for an hour after they go to bed? Nobody. So, the TV goes on.”
Robyn Flint, MS notes “binge-watching is often popular with people who just need a break from reality. It is easy to become drawn towards characters we find appealing. While watching and getting deeply involved in the storyline, we are not focused on the problems of the day. We are enthralled by the emotions that the show inspires. And once we watch the very last episode, we are left to process those feelings and find our way back to reality.”
Dr. Fran Walfish, a psychotherapist in Beverly Hills, believes people who engage in this behavior have a touch of obsessive compulsive traits in their personalities. Walfish said “using obsessive electronics, excessive TV, drugs, alcohol, food, sex, gambling, and other addictions are a way of not dealing directly with uncomfortable feelings. The person’s anxiety level shoots sky-high when the powerfully unpleasant emotion is felt. Rather than deal directly with the discomfort, the person temporarily soothes the pain with a distracting and calming behavior.”
Soothing pain can become addictive. Flint points out that “staying inside curled up with your favorite show for hours on end has addictive qualities. Cliff-hangers are famous for reeling us into the point of feeling like we have to know how it ends. So, we watch another episode. We may say, 'just one more and I will go to bed,' but it inevitably leads to more."
The problem with binge watching goes behind the time it takes. Burke adds, “TVs emit blue light, which has a similar effect to daylight on the brain. Rather than being lulled to sleep, the TV is sending signals to the brain to wake up. People end up watching just one more episode again and again before they finally crash.” Jeanine Joy, Ph.D. also commented on the blue light. She says, “it interferes with melatonin production which makes it more difficult to go to sleep and makes you less likely to feel sleepy.”
While sleep loss was the focus of this study, there are additional consequences of binge watching. Flint thinks “depression may result from isolating from the outside world, family, and friends to take in the latest Netflix series. When it is over, there are sometimes feelings of being let down or regret about the wasted time. There may be anxious feelings about things that weren’t accomplished and still need attention.”
Joy believes the lack of sleep is as bad as too much alcohol. “Repeatedly not getting enough for just a few days is enough to reduce driving skills as much as a blood alcohol level of .08,” said Joy. “Early signs of sleep deprivation also include reduction in the ability to focus, memory storage, and mood. If continued for several weeks, sleep deprivation negatively impacts immune and digestive function.”
Joy’s clients see an improvement in their sleep when they make a bedtime rule for themselves and turn a show off in the middle, during a lull in the suspense, instead of finishing it. She adds, “It is easier to turn off at a point where the suspense isn't making your brain wonder about what will happen next. Making your own set of rules to live by based on your priorities and including a ‘keep my word to myself rule’ helps adults manage temptations that interfere with their ability to achieve goals.”
For Walfish’s clients, if they cannot find a way to turn off the worries in their mind and it becomes an obsessive compulsive cycle, she recommends “a combination of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and the correct choice/dosage of anti-anxiety medication prescribed by a well-trained psychiatrist. All the talk therapy in the world will not help a patient who is suffering from obsessive thoughts and worries.”
The AASM, who authored the study, offers suggestions on their web site for practicing good sleep hygiene and following a bedtime-routine along with tips for streaming TV without sacrificing sleep.