We’ve all heard the advice to sleep in a dark, quiet room to get the most beneficial rest — and yet, we all know (and some of us even are) people who swear that they sleep better with the TV on. In fact, research suggests that up to one-third of adults consider their television set a “sleep aid.”
So, is the TV a legit sleep helper, or is relying on it a problem to be solved?
Having the TV on when you go to sleep is “problematic from a sleep perspective, for sure,” says neurologist, Sleep.com advisor, sleep specialist and author of “The Rested Child", Dr. Chris Winter. “It's negatively affecting the quality of your sleep and the way you feel the next day.”
Why TV is hurting your sleep
There are two main issues with having the TV on when you go to sleep and during the night: light and noise.
Having light in your eyes during the day is one of the cues to your body that it’s time to be awake. But when you’re exposed to excess light at night, your body thinks it’s daylight and sends out those same signals to wake up and be alert.
“The light interferes with your melatonin secretion, so it's preventing you from having that good sleep at night,” Winter notes, adding that the flickering and flashing images are also stimulating, right at the time that you’re trying to wind down or while you should be resting.
Though Winter notes that you can take steps to mitigate the intensity of the light, by moving the TV farther away from you, dimming it, or using blue-blocking glasses, for example, ”it's just better not to have it at all,” he says, adding that the same applies to phones, tablets, and laptops.
Sound from the television also interferes with good sleep. “Our brains are just, to some degree, vigilant,” Winter says. “If a fire alarm goes off in your bedroom, it wakes you up. We can hear sounds in our sleep. We're not quite as responsive to them in some cases, but sound in general affects our sleep negatively, especially dialogue.”
Research shows that while we sleep, if there’s dialogue happening around us, our brains continue to process it, sorting the words we hear into categories, which interferes with the other functions the brain performs during the stages of sleep. Noise while we’re sleeping also can cause a stress response, an additional barrier to quality sleep.
What to do if your television helps with anxiety at night
For some people, sleeping with the television on is just a habit, and all it takes is some education, or a partner who doesn’t like it, to break out of it. For patients who are simply convinced they sleep better with the TV, Winter recommends the use of a sleep tracker, so that they can compare the data on nights with and without television. Patients who thought they couldn’t sleep without it can see for themselves that not only are they sleeping, but their sleep quality is likely actually better.
For others, using the TV is part of a larger issue with anxiety, which can make ending the habit more challenging.
“Sleep and anxiety are absolutely connected,” says clinical psychologist Sumi Raghavan, Ph.D. “Anxiety revs us up and can be a barrier to relaxation, which is ideal for healthy sleep. The anxiety response can activate the sympathetic nervous system, which is our fight-or-flight system. Even low levels of anxiety send a signal to the system that there is some kind of trouble brewing, and the system begins to marshal resources to address the problem. Doing this requires increasing your heart rate and respiration, tensing your muscles, possibly releasing adrenaline — all things that run counter to sleep and relaxation.”
For some, the idea of sleeping without the TV is enough to cause an anxious response, because it’s become such an ingrained behavior. “Insomnia only works with fear,” Winter notes. “And so, in this case, we're talking about the fear of the lack of a ‘Friends’ episode or whatever. You really have to start to break down their cognitive belief structure, which is pretty much the mainstay of what insomnia treatment is.”
Others use TV as a tool to distract them from other causes of anxiety that may cause sleep disruption, Raghavan says. “Is it a fear of being alone with your thoughts? Is it that you want a small amount of light, or low levels of noise?” she says, noting that adults may be reluctant to admit that they have a fear of the dark, for example.
Whether it’s simply a habit or a symptom of anxiety, it’s worth looking into why you’ve adopted this behavior. “I’m a big believer in building insight into the origin of our habits to help us start shifting out of them,” Raghavan says. “It’s worth considering why you perceive yourself to need the TV. If I say to you, ‘Turn off the TV tonight before going to bed,’ what thoughts and feelings come up?”
When trying to access your bedtime behaviors to make adjustments, it’s important to take note of all aspects. “I would also ask if there’s anything about sleeping with television that’s not working for you,” she adds. “Let’s get in touch with the motivation to change this habit. Are you finding you end up staying up later, or don’t sleep as well? First, understand the origins and purpose of the habit, then channel the motivation to change.”
How to break up with your TV (at bedtime)
If you’ve been using TV as part of your sleep routine for a long time, it may feel daunting to stop – but the process doesn’t have to be abrupt or punitive.
“As a general rule, habits change piece by piece,” Raghavan says. “Let’s assume you’ve built some insight around your sleep habits and have some motivation to change them. I’d start small, maybe lying down with either a relaxing podcast or music, for 10 minutes. When the timer goes off, if you’re not feeling relaxed or closer to sleep, and you really want the TV on, you can turn it on. But you keep practicing for 10 minutes a night for a few nights, and then you increase the time to 15 minutes, and then to 20.”
In time, your body will associate relaxation with this habit instead of the TV, and you’ll be able to fall asleep. Music and podcasts are more optimal than television because “they’re not designed to promote engagement and attentiveness in the same way [as TV], and don't require your system to be ‘on,’” she says, adding that it’s important to choose content that’s aimed at promoting relaxation.
Over time, once you’ve switched from television to music or a podcast, you can eventually wean yourself off that, too – but you don’t have to, if your sleep quality is good.
Another approach is to use a timer with the television. Set the timer so you fall asleep with the TV on, but then it shuts off after a given amount of time, so you don’t have that noise and light on all night. Over time, you can shorten the timer.
Don’t be afraid to try more than one approach, Raghavan says. “In general, with behavior change, slow steps and an experimental attitude are ideal,” she notes. “If something doesn’t work, we try something else.”