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Thanks to the rise of mobile entertainment, binge-watching is the new phenomenon that’s taking a toll on family life, with sleep patterns taking the worst hit. Our expert analyses
Twenty-nine-year-old Sanju gears up for an important meeting at work. Half-way through her colleague’s presentation, she finds herself drifting off to sleep. She’s just not able to focus and her eyes keep closing. Another cup of coffee doesn’t help. Her mind goes back to the previous evening when she got back from work, plonked on herself on the couch after a tiring day and looked for some mindless entertainment on TV. By midnight, she completed an entire season of ‘Game of Thrones’, and was tempted to watch just one more episode. It wasn’t such a good idea after all.
Sanju is not alone. It’s not without a reason a global bank had once coined the tagline – The Citi never sleeps! With the emergence of online streaming services such as Netflix, Prime Video, Hulu, and Hotstar, a new behavioral phenomenon has arisen: binge-watching, defined as viewing multiple episodes of the same television show in the same sitting. Viewers are now increasingly watching TV in larger doses and at a time of their choice. With ‘streaming’ becoming an increasingly solo activity, people would rather give sleep a miss, than giving up their screen time. In other words, ‘screen over sleep’ is the new reality.
Welcome to new-age entertainment. Today, family gatherings in front of the living room TV have been replaced by individuals huddled alone over their high-speed Wi-Fi devices, each viewing their preferred show from the comfort of their bedrooms. The wait for an entire week for the latest episode of one’s favorite show has been replaced by instant streaming and having the entire series at our fingertips. No wonder today that we are the digitally distracted and bleary-eyed version of ourselves. How we consume media is transforming the way we relax and the way we relate to our family members. Most significantly, it is causing a long-term impact on our health, particularly our sleep.
Binge-watching is the latest addition to a long list of factors related to sleep disruption, which include stress, late-night response to work emails, physical inactivity and high caffeine consumption.
In an American study conducted by Exelmans and Van den Bulck in 2018 and published in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine, over one-third of binge-watchers reported poor sleep. That’s an alarming statistic indeed. Is the surge in binge-watching a direct outcome of the big rise in streaming services? To understand more, we reached out to the lead authors of the study in consideration. In an exclusive interaction, Exelmans said, “We found a higher frequency of binge viewing to be related to poorer sleep quality, more symptoms of fatigue, and insomnia. The same relationship was not found with regular TV viewing.” So, what is it about binge-watching in particular that adversely impacts sleep? Researchers attribute it to two chief factors: pre-sleep arousal and the blue light emitted from the devices used for binge-watching.
This refers to the stimulation of the brain and body before falling asleep, which may significantly delay the onset of sleep. “People who binge-watch more frequently, experience more mental activation, and that is what is explaining the lower sleep scores,” Exelmans explains.
When you binge-watch, those cliff-hangers keep you tied to your screen because of what you are feeling and what your body is experiencing. As you feel nervous or excited about what’s going to happen next, your brain becomes more alert and releases dopamine, a neurotransmitter (or the pleasure chemical of our brain). Dopamine mimics the feeling of being high. Thus, the more you watch, the more dopamine is released, leaving your brain craving for more. That’s why it’s so hard to stop after just one or even a few episodes. We’re literally fighting a losing battle ‘to save’ our brain. When your body and brain are this activated, your parasympathetic nervous system (the system that plays a role in sleep) is shut down, and you’re unable to sleep. Pre-sleep arousal is stronger when one is viewing horror, thrillers, and sci-fi dramas, exactly the types of content people mostly binge on.
Another factor that interferes with our sleep, blue light is the light emanating from the screens of the devices we use to binge-watch. This form of wavelength is perceived most strongly by our brains, almost akin to sunlight. It tricks our brain into believing that it’s daytime, thus playing havoc with our natural rhythmic sleep-wake cycle.
A study published in the American Academy of Sleep Medicine in 2008, which utilized data from more than 21,000 adults, concluded that binge-watching contributed to chronic sleep debt. The individuals reported staying up late to watch shows and then waking up early to get to work.
This meant their sleep time was considerably lower than what was physiologically required (which is 7-8 hours), therefore resulting in a sleep debt.
Binge-watching, thus, gives rise to a host of sleep problems: trouble falling asleep, waking up during the night, waking up early in the morning and being unable to fall back asleep.
“I think binge-watching is a form of addiction since it caters to our dopamine craving. Never before in our history have we consumed so much media content in this manner. I think it is especially pernicious for young parents. It could mess with their empathy levels and cut into their sleep time. So, binge-watching is a strict No for me." -Bharat Ram, father to a 1½-year-old
So, what should be done? How can families change their viewing patterns so it doesn’t impact our sleep?
There are many ways in which you can savor the time you spend with your child, while juggling your adult life. Make even ten minutes spent with your child matter every day.
According to an American study conducted by Galak and colleagues in 2012, the more rapidly you consume the content on TV, the lesser joy you derive out of it. It is similar to eating your favorite dessert. The first few bites are more exciting for your taste buds, but by the last few bites, you are simply trying to finish what you started. Pacing yourself with TV shows allows you to think about what you’re watching and savor the subtle nuances that make the viewing interesting. It’ll also help build anticipation for the next episode, making it more engrossing when you finally sit down to view it.
It pays to be mindful of the light in your life. In the daytime, try and get plenty of natural light. If you can’t manage that because of being in a closed office all day, spend time outdoors early in the morning. At night, limit your screen time. If you must watch, use your device’s native red-light filter (these filter out the strong blue rays) and is called by varied names (such as ‘Eye Comfort’) in different devices.
This might seem counterintuitive—shouldn’t we dim the lights to aid better sleep? Watching in darkness,
however, makes it more likely to binge-watch, simply because the screen—and its content— remains the unbroken focus of attention. When the lights in your room are on, it gives a better chance for other objects or tasks to impinge upon your awareness and distract you from your screen.
In a 2017 Belgium study conducted by Flayelle and colleagues, participants expressed an inclination to complete their ongoing season viewing even when they did not really like it. This persistence in watching— Adam Sternberg at Vulture calls it purge-watching— fuels our binging. So, if you don’t find a show interesting even by its fifth or sixth episode, it’s definitely not your cup of tea. You don’t need to keep watching it to avoid being left out in discussions with friends or for the sake of finishing the show and removing it from your queue.
One of the reasons we don’t end up ceasing our binge is the auto-play function. It enables us to watch an entire 10-episode series without even having to click a button! Turning off the auto-play function on all your streaming services gives you a breather, making the decision to keep going a conscious one.
To regulate how much time you spend in front of the screen, set a timer or alarm on your phone when you sit down to watch. When the alarm goes off, you’re done. Or set a timer to turn off your device. There are many apps that enable you to automatically shut down your device or lock your screen after the desired duration.
Research suggests that binge-watching is a solitary pastime. A British study found that a majority of people watch TV alone on a daily basis. When we watch alone, it’s much harder to stop, but with others around, someone is more likely to say ‘enough’. This way, you and your family members can keep each other in check.
As a family, examine your relationship with screens. Start by asking each family member questions about his screen use:
Adults require 7 to 8 hours while children require anywhere between 9 and 11 hours of sleep per night. According to Dr Anisha Abraham, clinical psychologist at the American Mission Hospital, Bahrain, “A fixed bedtime routine needs to be followed. Set appropriate and consistent bedtimes for everyone in the family and stick to them.”
“As parents, it is extremely important for us to demonstrate healthy screen-viewing and sleep habits to our children,” adds Dr Abraham. Research corroborates the importance of setting a good example – 65% of children whose parents have an electronic device (smartphone, tablet, computer, laptop) in their bedroom also have one device in their own bedroom. Using screens in the bedroom is not a good idea – the more activities you introduce to your sleep environment, the more you confuse your brain into forgetting that bedroom is a place to wind down and fall asleep. So, watch where you watch.
Follow these healthy sleep habits as a family to improve your sleep quality:
Dr Manoj Sharma, who runs the SHUT (Service for Healthy Use of Technology) clinic, India’s first technology de-addiction clinic, recommends 2As for families to overcome the problem: