What Sleeping With the TV on Does to Your Health

Your relationship with screens at bedtime is complicated, experts say.

For many of us, few things put us to sleep faster than streaming a TV show or movie that we've watched dozens—or even hundreds—of times, setting the volume on low, and listening to dialogue that we can recite in our sleep.

But what kind of effect can snoozing in front of the tube have on your body and brain? A study published in JAMA Internal Medicine found that sleeping with the TV on in your bedroom "may be a risk factor for weight gain, overweight, and obesity." The authors of the report analyzed data from more than 43,000 women for the study. They went so far as to say that reducing your exposure to artificial light at night could "be a useful intervention for obesity prevention."

Sleeping with the TV on could be doing more than making you gain weight. Have you been bathing yourself in so much blue light that your body's reserve of the sleep hormone melatonin is as dry as the Sahara? Or, since your brain scrolls through everything you've ever done wrong in your life the second your head hits the pillow, is using your TV as a sedative the lesser of two evils? We went to experts to find out.

Can the Screen Be a Sleep Aid?

According to a 2022 National Sleep Foundation poll, 58% of Americans have their eyes on a screen before falling asleep. The same poll found that those who look at screens before bedtime sleep worse and for a shorter amount of time than those who don't. For some, it's simply a nightly ritual, said Vikas Jain, MD, sleep medicine specialist at Northwestern Medicine Central DuPage Hospital in Illinois. For others, the background noise can be relaxing or sleep-inducing.

But the scientific intel seems to be a mixed bag: One study published in the journal Behavioral Sleep Medicine found that using media of any kind as a sleep aid put a damper on sleep quality, while another study published in the Journal of Sleep Research found that media use before bed had no effect on sleep quality.

"In my opinion, zoning out in front of the TV further promotes poor sleep hygiene," said Chris Brantner, certified sleep science coach and founder of SleepZoo.com. "However, an argument can be made that there are some positives to doing so." (Interrupting the traffic jam of thoughts keeping you awake is one.)

Background Noise May Help You Fall Asleep Faster

When you set the volume loud enough to drown out the thoughts bombarding your racing mind but not so loud that it prevents your body from going into sleep mode, the effect may be similar to using a white noise machine. The ambient noise can help decrease the amount of time it takes you to fall asleep, said Dr. Jain.

Plus, streaming a TV episode or movie that you've seen multiple times can offer a sense of familiarity and comfort, making it less likely than a new binge-worthy show to trigger an emotional response that will keep you awake, said Dr. Jain. This is especially the case if what you're watching is lighter in nature (think sitcoms or Hallmark movies).

Sleep Quality Can Be Easily Compromised

Falling asleep with your TV on means you're also soaking in blue light from electronics. This can mess with the quality of your sleep by suppressing the production of melatonin, the hormone that keeps your sleep/wake cycle in check. And it can delay sleep onset, or the amount of time it takes to fall asleep said Dr. Jain.

Between the flickering of the screen and the chance that whatever's on next could be more stimulating, you might linger in the lighter sleep stages—causing you to miss out on some of the important restorative work the body does during sleep, such as consolidating memories and healing muscles.

Tweaking Your Pre-Sleep TV Habits May Help Lessen Their Negative Effects

Watching TV on an actual television—as opposed to a tablet or phone that's right in front of your face—may lessen the amount of blue light you're subjected to, said Brantner. Another option may be to turn away from the screen and listen to only the audio. Disabling autoplay may also be helpful in boosting sleep quality: "It lowers the chances that your sleep will be disrupted in the lighter stages by flickering lights and changes in sound," said Brantner. You could even go so far as to set your TV to turn off automatically at a certain time in order to cut out the light after you go to sleep.

Make sure you don't become too dependent on TV as a sleep aid, either. Reinforcing the association between TV and sleep can make it difficult to drift off without it, said Dr. Jain, especially in environments where you don't have access (say, during a power outage or camping trip).

One strategy may be to slowly whittle down your TV use and institute new calming bedtime behaviors, such as reading, meditating, or journaling said Brantner. Having a variety of sleep-promoting options can help you steer clear of becoming too reliant on any one habit, which may increase your chances of scoring a quality night's sleep no matter the environment you're snoozing in.

The Bottom Line

Using your TV as a sleep aid might not be the best way to promote good sleep hygiene. But if the alternative is full-on sleep deprivation, it may be better than nothing—although more research needs to be done to know for sure.

"Since anxiety and the inability to quiet thoughts is one of the primary reasons people have trouble sleeping, it stands to reason that if the TV helps you calm down, you may as well use it to get to sleep," said Brantner. In other words, tune in to zonk out.

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4 Sources
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  1. Park YMM, White AJ, Jackson CL, Weinberg CR, Sandler DP. Association of exposure to artificial light at night while sleeping with risk of obesity in women. JAMA Intern Med. 2019;179(8):1061-1071. doi:10.1001/jamainternmed.2019.0571

  2. National Sleep Foundation. National sleep foundation's sleep in America poll report.

  3. Exelmans L, Bulck JV den. The use of media as a sleep aid in adults. Behavioral Sleep Medicine. 2016;14(2):121-133. doi:10.1080/15402002.2014.963582

  4. Ellithorpe ME, Ulusoy E, Eden A, Hahn L, Yang C, Tucker RM. The complicated impact of media use before bed on sleep: Results from a combination of objective EEG sleep measurement and media diaries. Journal of Sleep Research. 2022;31(5). doi:10.1111/jsr.13551

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