Some people crawl into bed, yawn like newborn kittens, pull the covers over their shoulders, and immediately drift off into uninterrupted sleep. Other people, like me, need a bit more coaxing. Almost every night, I turn off my lights, turn on my TV, and stream endless hours of New Girl reruns until Netflix saves me from myself. I don’t know exactly when this began or if it will ever end, but I refuse to drift into dreamland without Jess, Nick, Winston, and Schmidt lighting the way.
If you’re in the same boat, you might feel like your brain needs that technological nudge to fall asleep. But if you’re one of those people who sleeps while a streaming service cycles through episode after episode of some show, are you unintentionally damaging your rest?
To find out if it’s cool to nod off in front of a TV (or whichever device you’re watching), you need to understand how screens can affect your sleep. Let’s break down the two main ways screens mess with your sleep.
How light from your TV affects your sleep
Your body has an internal clock known as your circadian rhythm, which typically works on a 24-hour cycle and is controlled in large part by patterns of light and darkness, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS). As it gets dark, your brain’s hypothalamus kicks in to make you feel like it’s about time to pass the hell out. Enter melatonin, a hormone your brain’s pineal gland secretes that helps make you tired.
During the day, your pineal gland stays relatively dormant, but when the sun goes down, this gland pumps melatonin into your bloodstream, according to the NINDS, essentially making your bed the most inviting thing you’ve ever seen.
The issue here is that exposure to artificial light—like the one coming from your TV as you cycle through Felicity episodes—can suppress melatonin, which could leave you less likely to fall asleep. (As could feeling tempted to stay up and watch a riveting plotline unfold.)
“We’re not supposed to be exposed to any artificial light at night, period,” Dianne Augelli, M.D., a fellow of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine and an assistant professor of Medicine at Weill Medical College of Cornell University, tells SELF. Thanks to the wonders of modern technology, that’s not super realistic, but the light/sleep tug of war can be very real for some people. This is why those who are experiencing insomnia are sometimes told to limit bright light as they’re trying to prepare their bodies for sleep.
A 2011 study published in The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism looked at artificial light exposure before bedtime in 116 people with no diagnosed sleep disorders. The researchers found that when compared to dim light, exposure to indoor electrical lighting (also called room light) between dusk and bedtime suppressed melatonin production to some extent in about 99 percent of the participants. While the study didn’t explicitly mention TV brightness, the researchers looked at participants living in room light up to 200 lux (the measurement of light intensity), while dim light was less than 3 lux. For context, a 2012 analysis of TVs with automatic brightness controls conducted by the United States Department of Energy found that most TV viewing occurs at less than 50 lux, so somewhere in between the two extremes posed in The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism study.
What’s more, the light from our tech devices has short wavelengths that make it appear somewhat blue, and some experts believe this “blue light” is particularly good at suppressing melatonin production.
What about when you’re actually sleeping? “As long as … you get those flashes of light, it’s getting through your eyelid,” Donald Greenblatt, M.D., director of the University of Rochester Medicine Sleep Center, tells SELF. Your eyelids are made of a thin enough material that this can definitely put you at risk of suppressing the melatonin secretion you need to sleep soundly, Dr. Greenblatt explains. You could also wake up due to the flashes of light themselves. However, your proximity to your screen can definitely have an impact here. “You’re probably getting less exposure to light from a TV that’s across the room rather than a tablet that’s in front of your face,” Dr. Greenblatt says.
How sounds from your TV affect your sleep
We’ve established that a flickering screen right in front of your face may affect your sleep, but there’s also the matter of sound.
“Some people would argue that something like TV in the background may be helpful because it prevents you from starting to ruminate or think about things that will get you into a pattern of what we call psychophysiological insomnia, where you’re not able to relax enough to fall asleep,” Dr. Greenblatt says. “There’s some element of truth in that, but the flipside is that the ambient noise of television is not steady.” Soothing and steady ambient sounds, like white noise or even a purring cat, can help some people fall and stay asleep, but the sporadic nature of TV noise could mess with your rest.
Environmental noise—like your neighbor stomping across her floor or a randomly loud-as-hell TV commercial—can interrupt your sleep without you even remembering it.
What all this means for your sleep quality
The primary concern here is that TV light and sound will keep you from getting into the deeper, more restorative stages of sleep, Dr. Augelli says. This can result in sleep deprivation, which can cause daytime sleepiness, irritation, lack of focus, and even muscle aches, according to the Mayo Clinic.
There’s also a possibility that this could affect your dreams. While there isn’t a lot of evidence to indicate that sleeping with the TV will give you Game of Thrones-themed nightmares, it’s possible that, say, a noise on the TV wakes you, you catch a glimpse of an adorable dog on the screen, and next thing you know you’re dreaming about rolling around in a pile of puppies. (Sign us up.)
But even if you don’t fully wake up, your brain is still active when you sleep, Dr. Augelli says. “We’re less attuned, but we’re not completely unaware, so you just don’t want to have a lot of sensory input,” she explains. And, of course, if you drift off to something disturbing, it could influence the contents of your dreams, Dr. Greenblatt says.
But what if you’re someone who always sleeps with the TV on and feels pretty damn rested when they wake up? “Sometimes we can get away with something until we can’t,” Dr. Augelli says. Ultimately, even if you have the TV on mute, the light can impact your circadian rhythm, Dr. Augelli explains. This might not impact your sleep in a major enough way for you to feel it the next day. But, as SELF previously reported, your circadian rhythm influences a lot more than just your rest. That includes your metabolism, hormone fluctuations, and even your body temperature—all pretty important processes that you don’t want light to potentially mess with.
What to do instead
Listen, if you always fall asleep with the TV on and feel well-rested, we can’t force you to stop. If, however, you suspect it might be messing with your sleep, it could be time to consider putting an end to this habit. There’s a reason why going to bed in a dark, quiet room is a cornerstone of great sleep hygiene.
If you’re insistent on watching a little TV while you drift off, your best bet is to put your television or screen on a timer if you can so that you aren’t exposed to light and sound all night. If you’re using a streaming service on a device like your laptop, see if you can disable autoplay so that you’re not seeing flashing lights and hearing random sounds all night long. Either way, try to dim the screen, and consider keeping the device as far away and as quiet as you can stand it.
You can also swap the TV for something like a podcast on really low volume, a white noise machine, or a meditation app that speaks to you, Dr. Greenblatt says—all things that can give you steady ambient noise without melatonin-suppressing light. The same goes for music. A calming mix might be the very thing you need.
If you’re having a really hard time letting go of leaving the TV on while you sleep, you might want to ask yourself why, Dr. Augelli says. Are you dealing with a lot of nighttime anxiety? Is it loneliness? Whatever the case may be, you might realize that your TV habit is masking something you may want to confront (potentially with the help of someone like a therapist, if it’s too much to handle on your own). Otherwise, it could make sense to experiment with going TV-free and seeing if that results in your best sleep yet.