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Back in a simpler era, we watched TV shows one episode at a time. Sometimes, sure, we'd luck into a double dose of something during sweeps week. But, for the most part, we got to know the precocious teens of primetime soaps and the neurotic yuppies of must-see-TV in single servings. Then Netflix and its ilk came along and gave us the option to watch entire series of old shows, and full seasons of new ones, however we wanted. And we did what (I have to assume) our predecessors did when the first all-you-can-eat buffet cropped up: We binged. 

The limited body of research on binge-watching, vaguely defined as watching multiple episodes of the same show in one sitting, suggests that more than 60 percent of American households use a streaming service and that somewhere around 70 percent of people who watch TV indulge in the occasional binge. In a 2015 study conducted by Tivo, almost one-third of viewers admitted to sacrificing sleep to continue binge-watching a show.

And, according to a new study, binge-watching may clash with sleep even for people who cut themselves off at a reasonable hour: Two researchers from The University of Michigan and KU Leuven in Belgium, Jan Van den Bulck and Liese Exelmans, found that binge-watching is associated with poor sleep in a way that traditional non-binge watching isn't. The sleep link, they believe, has more to do with the immersive nature of the binge-viewing experience than the amount of TV that binge-viewers consume. 

"Overall," explained Exelmans via email, "sleep research has concluded that TV is not that harmful for sleep, but we have to take into account that TV-viewing has changed dramatically over the past years."

Binge-viewers become strongly immersed in the story, identify with the characters and experience increased difficulty to stop viewing.

This study is the first to investigate the possibility that binge-viewers are especially vulnerable to sleep problems. Why, exactly, would it matter if someone watched three episodes of "The Affair" in a row vs. three hours of different shows over the course of a day? Because, researchers wrote, binge-viewers "become strongly immersed in the story, identify with the characters and experience increased difficulty to stop viewing." Sleep issues subsequently arise, they hypothesize, because binge-watching leaves people in a heightened state of arousal before bed.

To test their hypothesis, Van den Bulck and Exelmans asked 423 young adults, recruited via Facebook, to fill out questionnaires on binge-viewing habits, sleep quality, insomnia symptoms, fatigue and pre-sleep arousal. The arousal questionnaire covered both symptoms of somatic arousal, such as a racing heart, and cognitive arousal, such as mental alertness. And, without a fixed definition of binge-watching, researchers settled on "watching multiple consecutive episodes of the same TV show in one sitting on a screen, be it a television, laptop computer or tablet computer screen." 

Here are some of their binge-viewing findings: 

  • About 80 percent of participants identified as binge-viewers. Of that group, about 20 percent admitted to binge-watching at least a few times in the previous month. Forty percent said they'd binge-watched once during the same period; 7 percent said they'd binged nearly every day of that month. 
  • The average TV binge lasted just over three hours. 
  • Men binge-watched less frequently, but for longer periods of time, than women. And, across the board, the more often participants binge-watched, the less time they spent on each binge. 

And here's what they learned about sleep: 

  • More frequent binges corresponded to lower sleep quality, higher levels of fatigue and more insomnia. The duration of binges wasn't significant. So the twice-weekly, three-episode-at-a-time binger would be more likely to struggle with sleep than someone who goes on a 10-episode TV bender twice a year.
  • Cognitive — but not somatic — arousal explained the binge-watching-sleep link.
  • Regular pre-bedtime TV-watching was not associated with negative sleep outcomes or increased arousal.

The narrative complexity of "bingeable" shows, researchers reasoned, leaves viewers thinking about the episodes they've watched, as well as what's coming next. So it takes more time to cool down after a binge session than a stand-alone episode, leaving people unable to fall asleep as quickly, or get the same quality of sleep, as they otherwise would. 

While the study proposes cognitive arousal as the mechanism linking binge-watching and sleep issues, it doesn't prove that binge-viewing actually causes poor sleep. "How technology affects sleep is still a black box," said Exelmans. "The study results just highlight that, if you have trouble sleeping, you might want to consider that binge-watching contributes to that issue." 

There are plenty of questions about TV-viewing habits and sleep that remain unanswered, such as the degree to which the young adults in this study represent binge-watchers in other age groups. Exelmans, who says he's fascinated by the phenomenon of bedtime procrastination, plans to keep exploring our pre-bed technology use in future research.

Using media as a sleep aid is a documented practice.

"We've documented that sleep deprivation is partly our own fault," Exelmans said. "We fail to go to bed in time because of the lure of TV ... if we know that part of the problem is self-control (which we tend to have little of when the day comes to an end, which is exactly when we need to decide to go to bed), then we could develop intervention strategies aimed at improving self-control."

As a binge-viewer himself, Exelmans isn't above the lure of TV. "For me," he said, "it offers an escape from daily worries."

And many people likely incorporate Netflix into their bedtime routines for a similar reason. "Using media as a sleep aid is a documented practice," he said, "and it's also well-known that we tend to seek out media to alleviate negative mood. Even though research to date has not indicated positive effects of technology on sleep, it could be that people think they will sleep better after watching TV." 

To be fair, I'm pretty sure science has proven the solemnifying effects of Frasier and Niles' transatlantic-inflected repartee. But many people who don't use TV as a sleep aid still spend their nights consuming shows in bulk — reports suggest that most binge-watching sessions happen unintentionally.

So what should you do if, somehow, you're eight episodes deep into a new show when the clock strikes bedtime? Well, based on the notion that cognitive arousal mediates the binge-watching-sleep relationship, Van den Bulck and Exelmans suggest not turning in if you feel wound-up. And, to help yourself calm down, consider practicing mindfulness or relaxation techniques. Then go ahead and put your Netflix-addled brain to bed. After all, what's the point of bingeing a show tonight if you won't be well-rested enough to debate fan theories tomorrow?

 

This story has been updated.