The phenomenon of binge-watching has made an appearance in very recent years with the advent of streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon Prime. It is currently estimated that 71 per cent of the adult population of the United States watches video content online.
As opposed to conventional TV, online and on-demand access to our favourite shows makes it easy to watch a high number of episodes in one sitting, usually in the evenings.
But what is the cost of such intense media consumption on our sleeping habits? Researchers from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, in collaboration with the Leuven School for Mass Communication Research in Belgium, set out to investigate.
The first author of the study is Liese Exelmans, a researcher at the Leuven School for Mass Communication Research, and the findings were published in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine.
The link between binge-viewing and sleep
Exelmans and colleagues conducted a survey in 423 young adults aged between 18 and 25, 61.9 per cent of whom were female. The participants filled in an online questionnaire that assessed how often they watched TV and how often they binge-watched.
They answered questions about the quality of their sleep using a standard questionnaire called the “Pittsburgh Sleep Quality Index.” The researchers also assessed whether or not they had fatigue using the Fatigue Assessment Scale, which is another standard instrument used to assess chronic fatigue in adults.
Also, to assess insomnia, the researchers used the Bergen Insomnia Scale – that is, a tool devised in 2008 for assessing “sleep onset, maintenance, and early morning wakening insomnia.” Finally, cognitive and somatic arousal before going to sleep was assessed using the Pre-Sleep Arousal Scale.
The researchers applied regression analyses to the data obtained, and a mediation analysis was performed in an attempt to identify a mechanism that may explain any potential associations.
Binge-viewing increases fatigue, insomnia
Of the entire sample studied, over 80 per cent identified themselves as binge-viewers. Of these, more than 20 per cent had engaged in binge-viewing at least a few times per week in the month prior to the study.
Overall, men binge-watched significantly less than women – however, when they did engage in binge-watching, their sessions were nearly twice as long as those identified among women.
Almost a third of those who reported poor sleep (32.6 per cent) “had a poor sleep quality associated with being a binge-viewer.” Those who binge-watched, in other words, reported significantly more fatigue and insomnia than those who did not.
The study found that “higher binge-viewing frequency was associated with a poorer sleep quality, increased fatigue, and more symptoms of insomnia, while regular television viewing was not.”
Additionally, “Cognitive pre-sleep arousal fully mediated these relationships,” the researchers write, suggesting that being kept mentally alert may be the reason why binge-watching has such a negative effect on sleep.
“This prolongs sleep onset or, in other words, requires a longer period to ‘cool down’ before going to sleep, thus affecting sleep overall,” says Exelmans. Previous studies have shown that cognitive arousal can have a negative effect on sleep onset.
“TV shows with a high binge-watching value have plots that keep the viewer tied to the screen,” explains Exelmans. “We think viewers become intensely involved with the content, and may keep thinking about it when they want to go to sleep.”
“Basically, sleep is the fuel your body needs to keep functioning properly. Based on this, it’s very important to document the risk factors for poor sleep. Our research suggests that binge-viewing could be one of these risk factors.”