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Is It Okay to Fall Asleep in Front of the TV? A Q&A with Jared Minkel, Ph.D.

By Nicole Pajer
October 16, 2023

This article is part of a Q&A series in which a healthcare professional in our community answers your frequently asked questions. Here, we talked to Jared Minkel, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist specializing in behavioral sleep medicine in Rhode Island. Minkel gives us the honest truth about how watching nighttime TV can harm your sleep, and offers tips on what to do instead for better sleep.

We asked: "Is falling asleep in front of the TV okay?"

Jared Minkel, Ph.D.: I get asked this question a lot. Americans love their TV shows, and the way that apps like Netflix and Hulu work, we’re automatically pushed to the next episode again and again. In 2020, 70% of adults ages 30 to 44 and 62% of those 45 to 64 said they binge-watch television. Our televisions are often responsible for keeping us up at night, and some people swear by falling asleep in front of the TV.

This, however, is not something I recommend.

Breaking Dependency

Falling asleep while watching TV is not ideal for a couple of reasons. First off, it’s helpful to trust yourself to fall asleep on your own. If you’re falling asleep in front of the TV because you can’t sleep without it, you should probably work on breaking that dependence. Many people I’ve worked with watch TV so they don’t have to deal with what’s going on in their mind.

TV Interrupts Sleep

Plus, having the TV on will interrupt your sleep. The sounds and volume level will change. So, you fall asleep watching Game of Thrones, and maybe at first, it's regular dialogue. But then there's going to be a battle scene, or a dragon will appear, and the music will get more intense. And even if you don't fully wake up, your brain still notices the change in your environment and will probably switch into a shallower stage of sleep.

Then, there’s the problem that if you fall asleep on the couch, you’ll probably need to get up and go to your bed at some point, which also disrupts sleep.

Ideally, you shouldn’t have a TV in your bedroom at all. But if you do, it’s better to watch for a little bit, turn it off, and go to sleep. Some people use a sleep timer on their TV, but when the sleep timer shuts off, your brain notices the change, and you might awaken or move to a lighter sleep stage.

So, if you're not happy with how your sleep is right now, get your TV out of your bedroom. Or at the very least, watch for a little bit, then turn it off, and then go to sleep.

Blue Light Messes Up the Body Clock

The same blue light from a phone is also emitted by a TV. Blue light interferes with sleep. If you’re exposed to it at night, it shifts your rhythm so that you’ll fall asleep later than you would otherwise. And TVs are huge now. People used to have a little TV in their bedroom; now you'll have like a 64-inch high-definition TV with a ton of light.

I’ve had people ask me to help them sleep, but they want to keep their giant TV. The answer is no. It's fine if you want to take the hit and sacrifice some sleep because you love TV, but you probably can’t have both.

Commercials Are Made to Be Stimulating

If you’re going to watch before bed, try to watch a show without commercials. Aim for something that's familiar, like reruns of a sitcom or a baking show, something that's not going to be alerting. Remember that strong emotions wake you up. So, if you're watching something new and exciting, that's going to potentially wake you up. But more than that, it’s the commercials.

If you go on YouTube and just look up a commercial for a Toyota Corolla, it’s filmed like it's an action movie. Think about how quickly there's a scene change; it's way more than one per second. It’s a car driving fast, and it's swinging around. And somebody’s jumping out a window, and so your brain processes all that and wakes you up.

Even if you're watching a show that's pretty calm, if a commercial comes on, it's designed to attract your attention, wake you up, and get you looking at it. So, commercials are particularly bad for sleep.

Avoid TV News at Night

I’d also avoid watching the news before bed. News is sneaky. It seems like you’re just checking in on current events, but then it’s more like, “Here are all the worst things happening from all over the world.” And that's just a lot to take in. Try not to watch it, especially not at night. If it’s important to you to be informed of what's going on in the world, just get caught up in the morning.

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