When it comes to sleep habits, there are some people who sleep with the TV on and those who don't. The former group swears by the tube's power to send them into slumber while the latter opposes it just as fervently, saying it screws with their snooze. But really — is it bad to sleep with the TV on?
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Well, like most things in life, there may be no cut-and-dry answer.
Still, we enlisted sleep expert Wendy Troxel, PhD, a senior behavioral and social scientist at the RAND Corporation and author of Sharing the Covers: Every Couple's Guide to Better Sleep, to help settle (or at least shed some light on) this sleep debate.
First, Are There Benefits to Sleeping With the TV On?
For some people, falling asleep with the TV on is a necessary part of their nighttime ritual. Tuning in before bed helps them tune out the stress of the day and unwind, Troxel says.
Similarly, the sound of the TV during sleep serves as a pleasant, comforting white noise that can drown out other distractions (like noisy neighbors or loud street traffic).
These relaxing effects may explain why sleeping with the TV on is so popular. Indeed, a sample of more than 800 adults found that nearly one-third relied on TV as a sleep aid, according to a January 2014 study in Behavioral Sleep Medicine.
Skipping large meals, caffeine and alcohol before bed can also help you fall asleep better, per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
4 Ways Sleeping With the TV On Can Be Harmful
Still, dozing off to Netflix or the nightly news can sabotage your sleep (and maybe even your relationships). Here are some reasons why it is bad to sleep with the TV on:
1. It Disrupts Your Internal Clock
"TVs, like other electronic devices, emit blue light, which can disrupt sleep, circadian rhythms and hormonal balance," Troxel says.
Indeed, blue light blocks your body's production of melatonin, a hormone that helps regulate your circadian rhythm (i.e., your 24-hour internal clock) and helps with sleep, according to Harvard Health Publishing.
And it doesn't even take a lot of light to mess with your melatonin levels: Even the small rays emitted from a table lamp can affect you, per Harvard Health Publishing.
2. It Keeps You Up Later
When you watch a binge-worthy TV show before bed, you're likely to stay up into the wee hours to see another episode (or two or three).
That's what the Behavioral Sleep Medicine study concluded: People who used media like TV to fall asleep had later bedtimes.
To make matters worse, "streaming TV shows are designed to be highly absorbing, making it very difficult to stop watching," Troxel says. "In fact, the CEO of Netflix has said their biggest competitor is sleep."
But here's the thing: When you stay up late and don't catch enough regular zzzs, you become susceptible to a slew of health-related issues. Yep, inadequate sleep is linked to a greater risk for depression, diabetes and cardiovascular problems, according to Harvard Health Publishing.
3. It Interrupts Your Sleep
Not only does TV before bed keep you up later, but it can also disturb your slumber after you've drifted off to dreamland. Once again, highly stimulating content is commonly the culprit.
For example, if you fall asleep watching a horror movie, the images may haunt your dreams and cause nightmares. "Personally, I know I've had to stop watching certain shows that I love simply because I knew that they were causing bizarre or scary dreams," Troxel says.
"Even watching the news these days can be highly distressing, which is counterproductive when trying to fall [and stay] asleep," she adds.
Other times, the noise from the tube is to blame for interrupting a peaceful slumber. For instance, the shift in volume that often occurs when a new show or commercial comes on can rouse you.
Or, ironically, even the sound of the TV shutting off can jolt you awake. "Many of my clients set an alarm on their TV to go off at a certain time, but over time, this becomes habit-forming, and their brains become conditioned to that timing such that they wake up when the TV turns off," Troxel says.
And those frequent sleep disruptions can affect your daily functioning. Case in point: A September 2014 study in Psychology and Aging found that people with interrupted sleep had poorer cognitive performance during the day compared to those who slept continuously through the night.
4. It Can Cause Conflict With Your Partner
This is "one important (and often neglected) consequence to consider," Troxel says. "For couples who share a bed, sleep and sleep behaviors are interdependent."
That means if one partner likes to snooze with the TV on, and the other doesn't (because it negatively affects their quality of sleep), this can lead to conflict and resentment in the relationship, Troxel says.
How to Modify Your TV Habits
If you can't fall asleep without the TV, you might be dealing with a more serious issue like insomnia or another sleep disorder, Troxel says. In these cases, the TV is just acting as a band-aid, so it's best to seek professional help (more on this later) to deal with the underlying issue.
In the meantime, here are a few ways to modify your TV habits to reduce the negative effects on your sleep quality.
1. Skip Stimulating Content
"If you are going to watch TV, beware of the content," Troxel says. In other words, there's a world of difference between watching a lighthearted comedy and a heart-pounding, action-packed thriller before bed.
When you're engrossed in something super stimulating, your brain stays alert. "But this mental activation right before bed can persist into the night, making it difficult to fall into deeper stages of sleep," Troxel says. So, opt for content that's light, fun or calming.
2. Set a Hard Stop
To avoid bedtime procrastination, set a hard deadline — about an hour before you doze off — for highly stimulating or addictive content, Troxel says. And if you find yourself slipping into later and later bedtimes, you can even set an alarm on your phone as a reminder, she adds.
3. Keep the Volume Low
If you lean on TV for comforting white noise, limit the volume in the hours before bed. A TV on a low volume setting is less likely to startle you from slumber and sabotage your sleep cycle.
Keeping a consistent bedtime and sleeping in a cool, dark room can also help you fall and stay asleep, according to the CDC.
Alternatives to Sleeping With the TV On
"There are better strategies [than sleeping with the TV] to find comfort and quiet the mind before falling asleep," Troxel says.
Break the habit for good with these alternatives:
1. Practice Meditation
In fact, an April 2015 study in JAMA Internal Medicine found that adults with chronic sleep struggles who practiced mindfulness meditation (compared to those who received sleep education to improve their sleep habits) experienced less insomnia, fatigue, depression, anxiety and stress.
2. Try a Sleep App
If you prefer background noise to help you drift off, Troxel says to consider a sleep app.
3. Listen, Don’t Watch
Another way to get ambient noise is to listen to some soothing music or a podcast before bed.
A March 2020 study in JMIR Mental Health found that auditory stimuli (like listening to tunes) didn't negatively affect bedtime in the same way as visual stimuli.
But remember, the same rules still apply to podcasts: Keep the content calm and light. That means no mind-bending murder mysteries or scintillating sci-fi epics to keep you awake late into the night.
4. See a Sleep Specialist
If you really struggle to fall sleep and believe that TV is the only way to get shut-eye, Troxel recommends seeking professional treatment. "You may have a sleep disorder, such as insomnia or chronic nightmares," she says.
If that's the case, using TV as a sleep aid only treats the symptoms, not the cause.
But here's the good news: "There are highly effective behavioral (i.e., non-medication) treatments that can treat these conditions," Troxel says. A sleep specialist can help you address your problem and tailor a treatment plan to support you in getting long-lasting relief from sleepless nights.
So, How Bad Is It Really to Sleep With the TV On?
In short, it is bad to sleep with the TV on, generally. "In the long run, finding a way to fall asleep and stay asleep deeply and quickly without the TV is preferred," Troxel says.
So for all you pro-TV people: While it may be tough to form new habits at bedtime, it's probably in your health's best interest.
- Harvard Health Publishing: “Blue light has a dark side”
- Psychology and Aging: “Role of sleep continuity and total sleep time in executive function across the adult lifespan”
- Behavioral Sleep Medicine: “The Use of Media as a Sleep Aid in Adults”
- JMIR Mental Health: “The Mediating Role of Visual Stimuli From Media Use at Bedtime on Psychological Distress and Fatigue in College Students: Cross-Sectional Study”
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Tips for Better Sleep"
- Cleveland Clinic: "Here’s What Happens When You Don’t Get Enough Sleep (And How Much You Really Need a Night)"
- JAMA Internal Medicine: "Mindfulness Meditation and Improvement in Sleep Quality and Daytime Impairment Among Older Adults With Sleep Disturbances"