The answer to this question isn’t as simple as you think.
On the one hand, some doctors and researchers advise against it. They’ll specifically tell you that the light will affect your body’s internal clock, wreak havoc on your sleep cycles and make you feel less rested than if you had abstained from watching Jimmy Fallon.
While they admit that many people need background noise or distraction to quiet their minds and fall asleep, they’ll recommend a white noise machine or a meditation app.
However, the other side of the argument has valid points, too. According to the National Sleep Foundation, 60 percent of Americans watch television right before bed either every night or almost every night. Are they hurting themselves? Should society worry about this afflicted majority?
In this article, we’ll explore the science behind why researchers equate falling asleep with the TV on nearly as bad as smoking and whether or not you should throw the television out of the bedroom.
Should You Fall Asleep with the TV On?
We’re not here to tell you that you should do it; that’s entirely up to you. But, we can say there’s a difference between putting a rerun of an old show like The Simpsons or Seinfeld on in the background versus watching a new episode of The Walking Dead.
The truth is that studies on watching television as you fall asleep are limited, and most of them study the effects of the blue light that emanates from the screen only.
Researchers who lump activities like watching television and scrolling through social media into the same category may have been shortsighted. Yes, both of these endeavors involve light exposure; however, TV-watching is a passive and often relaxing activity, while looking through a Facebook or Instagram feed or getting stuck in a Google rabbit hole are stimulating and can delay your bedtime by hours.
While it’s not our typical behavior to dispute science, the research to support the television theory is minimal and doesn’t study television directly. Therefore, we’ll suggest that if you think it helps you fall asleep, then, by all means, keep doing it. We do feel a duty, though, to warn you about the well-researched effects of light exposure before going to bed.
Effects of Light Exposure Before Bedtime
Any light exposure right before bedtime, whether it’s from a smartphone screen or the light in your bathroom, disrupts the production of melatonin. Melatonin is a hormone that is responsible for sleep. It reaches peak production right before we fall asleep, then gradually dissipates from our system as morning comes. As we’re bustling off to work, it’s at a low point until it gets closer to bedtime.
All humans, and in fact all creatures in general, have a circadian rhythm or internal clock that drives biological functions. In humans, it’s a 24-hour cycle that aligns with the light and darkness of daytime and nighttime.
This clock not only dictates sleeping habits, but it’s also responsible for hormone function, metabolism, and more.
When light enters the picture, it can affect the clock’s ability to tell time. If it’s dark outside, your body instinctively knows that it’s time for bed. However, light from a screen can signal that instead of sleeping, it’s time to be awake.
Prevents Deeper Stages of Sleep
The constant emission of light, especially the blue LED lights in electronic devices, works to prevent you from fully entering deep stages of sleep. At the very least, it can make the time spent in restorative phases shorter.
Low Sleep Quality
Constant exposure to brightness as you’re trying to get rest can alter your bedtime quality. Instead of waking up refreshed from eight hours of rest, you may find yourself walking through the next day in a zombie-like stance.
Messes the Sleep Cycles
Our bodies need to enter deep sleep to repair and restore tissues as well as process the information and stimuli we took in throughout the day. The stage of the cycle, called slow-wave sleep or SWS, is vital for this function.
However, as we mentioned, light exposure prevents the deeper stages of sleep from occurring, therefore inhibiting our healing and information-processing capabilities.
Frequently Asked Questions
Does watching T.V. before bedtime cause depression and anxiety?
Again, the science here supports the theory that too much light exposure at night can indeed cause depression and anxiety. The studies tend to keep a room constantly lit for 24 hours, and even though television does emit brightness, it’s not the same intensity as a lamp or overhead light.
Depression and anxiety are potentially life-threatening afflictions. You may feel like you need the company or distraction of a television to take your mind off of stressful events. In cases like these, it seems logical that the light from a TV screen is not much of a threat. However, if it is disrupting your bedtime, then it might be beneficial to get a white noise machine that has soothing nature soundscapes.
Why does watching the tube make me sleepy?
People often report that they’ll put on a television show or movie right before bed and they’re asleep before the end of the theme song or the opening credits. Anecdotes like these make us wonder if this passive screen time could actually be a sleep aid and not a hindrance.
The reason is that our brains create alpha waves when we watch TV. These brainwaves promote relaxation and daydreaming states, partially due to the visual imagery that is shown on the television.
Can late-night TV-watching cause sleep deprivation?
It can, yes. If you’re watching suspenseful movies or shows, then you might stay awake and experience sleep disturbances. Similarly, if you binge-watch a program, you’ll get fewer hours of shuteye.
It’s tough to say definitively whether falling asleep with the TV is harmful to your health. There’s not enough data to adequately support or disprove the theory yet. Our recommendation is to do what feels best for you. If you prefer to watch television right before bed or as you fall asleep, put something on that doesn’t overstimulate you, keep you awake or induce nightmares. Sweet dreams!
Author: Jill Thompson
I've been self-employed for almost four years and I would not change it for anything! I believe that anyone can achieve their goals with the right attitude and determination.
I'm an avid traveler (25+ countries and counting) that loves to meet new people doing amazing things.
When I'm not researching for the Sleep Advisor, you can find me reading, running, traveling, golfing, or meditating.
I wish you the very best on your journey!