Sleep Better

TV before bed: Does it ruin your sleep or is it the break we need?

20 Apr 20235 min read
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Watching TV in bed is more popular than ever, thanks to the increase of on-demand channels. Streaming services have made it easier to plan our daily viewing, and freed us from the yoke of TV scheduling. However, it also means we have compelling TV at our fingertips and sometimes that makes it harder to switch off the television at the end of the day. How much of a problem is that? Mattress Online’s resident sleep expert James Wilson - otherwise known as the Sleep Geek - looks into the impact of TV before bed and offers some helpful tips on how to get a better night’s sleep.

If you believe some sleep experts (the ones I like to call ‘Sleep Grinches’) then any sort of device interaction — your phone, your laptop, your tablet, your abacus (no, not really) — any stimulation, any hint of blue light and you are doomed to have a bad night’s sleep.

Yet absolutely loads of us watch TV before bed as an important part of our pre-sleep routine, both in the bedroom itself or more often somewhere downstairs. In fact, research from the US shows that almost three-quarters of people use TV as part of their pre-sleep routine, well ahead of having a bath or shower (at 32%).

But don’t be too down on late-night TV. It can actually help us relax by creating an effective distraction from daily concerns in the hours before bed.

Pick the wrong programme though and you could have problems. A recent study suggests that watching TV ‘cliffhangers’ actually leads to disrupted sleep.

The rise of Netflix and the binge-watching generation

The names of the top streaming services: Netflix, Disney Plus, Prime Video, HBO Max and Apple TV

Also keep in mind that there are some companies out there that would prefer you spend all night bingeing on programme after programme rather than sleeping. 

Netflix is the self-proclaimed enemy of sleep. Its chairman and ex CEO Reid Hastings has described sleep as its “number one competitor”. 

We all know the dangers of the “next episode” button. Instead of selecting to watch the next episode, it just rolls on to the next one with no action needed. In fact, we have to actively opt out if we don’t want to watch any more.

But we need to take some responsibility for this. If we choose to carry on watching TV and not retiring to bed, we can’t very well blame Netflix or Amazon Prime. We should accept that it is an intentional choice on our part. We all know that it is better to go to bed rather than stay up binge watching, especially if by staying up, you miss out on your normal amount of sleep.

Watching TV in bed

Where we often go wrong when it comes to pre sleep TV viewing is twofold. Where we watch the TV, and what we are watching on TV.

Don’t be a dictator

Couple falling asleep while watching TV in bed and eating popcorn

I often work with couples where you have one partner in a relationship who says they need to watch TV in bed, before sleep. But this disturbs the wind-down routine of the other person, who can be right on the cusp of dropping off. The unfortunate partner ultimately has their sleep disrupted due to the nocturnal watching habits of the one they love. 

The issue with watching TV in bed is that it means leisure time bleeds into sleep time, and the body and brain become confused about when they should be preparing for sleep. Many of the chronic insomniacs I have worked with have developed the habit of watching TV in bed to deal with their inability to fall asleep. Yet it often results in their sleep time getting later and later. Not only does this impact their sleep, but if they share a bed, the sleep of their partner also suffers.

So how do we solve this?

The first thing is to agree that the bedroom is a place for sleep (and maybe a bit of something else). 

Try not to watch TV, do work, socialise online or eat at bedtime. If we do these things, we do them in another room of the house. This means that if one person wants to go to bed, the bed is then free to sleep in peacefully.

What not to watch before bed

The other issue with TV is what we are watching. I know from personal experience (I am guilty of not always following my own advice) that if I am watching something suspenseful, with a cliffhanger, and maybe involving zombies or murder or something that gets my heart racing, then I am less likely to sleep well. 

Going to sleep is rarely an issue, but the quality of my sleep is affected. The amount of times I remember waking up after bad dreams greatly increases. All of this means I feel a bit sleep deprived the next day.

Unresolved plotlines leave you restless

Woman eating ice cream while watching TV in bed

Interestingly, researchers have looked at this and found that suspenseful drama isn't actually that bad before bed, it is cliffhangers that kill our sleep.

The study looked at the effects of binge watching a suspenseful TV series before bed on your quality of sleep.

Streaming services like Netflix offer the opportunity to binge watch several hours of series. One issue is that because these services want to keep viewers watching, episodes typically have open endings in critical scenes, like cliffhangers.

The study expected to find that watching TV before bed wouldn’t be all that great for you. However, while it did show that cliffhangers can get your brain overstimulated and affect your quality of sleep, it also showed that binge watching a suspenseful TV series (that doesn’t end in a cliffhanger) before bed barely had any affect on sleep quality. In fact, participants actually fell asleep faster after watching the suspenseful TV series compared with watching something calmer, like a documentary. 

For me, I would generally steer clear of this kind of content and simply keep it:

  • Funny (your favourite sitcom) 
  • Repetitive (bake off, they are going to make a cake)
  • Trashy (watch Love Island and revel in the sun and sniping)

These are all programme types that give your brain a break and help you to zombie out in front of the screen.