Is Watching TV Before Going To Sleep Really A Problem?

TV before sleep

Watching TV before sleep can not only be fine if done correctly, it can actually help you get to sleep.

Over the years, well-meaning people have been giving out advice on sleep that isn’t always particularly helpful. There has been so much of this type of advice that I have come to put much of it into a category I call “sleep clichés”.  These are things you have heard so many times over and over that you are probably sick to death of them and which you have more than likely tried but not gotten any real sleep improvement from.  I’ve lost count of how many there are and I tackle all the ones I am aware of in my upcoming book The War On Sleep, but today I am focused on just one:  watching tv before going to sleep.  Just to be as unambiguous as possible, I will be talking about watching tv in bed right before going to sleep, not hours before, though this is still applicable as you get closer to bedtime.

For years, people have been telling us this is a problem and for a very good reason:  televisions in their default state are a very strong and bright source of blue spectrum light.  Blue light (or light closer to the blue end of the spectrum than the red end)  is what our brain’s built-in circadian cycle recognizes (subconsciously) as daylight, so anytime a strong source of blue light is registering, our brain effectively thinks it’s daytime and starts telling every cell in our body it’s time to wake up and get going.  This is NOT what you want going on in your mind and body as you try to get to sleep!

But, television itself is not the culprit here, not really.  The problem is a television screen with strong blue shades of light blasting out of it.  If you remove the brightness and the blue light from a tv (or computer or tablet or phone, or any) screen, you get something that is still very watchable and easily possible to fall asleep to.  In fact, in my experience, you get something that will very likely help you to get to sleep. Of the almost 1000 nights I have tracked my sleep in Sleep Cycle, I would estimate that about 95% of them I fell asleep this way.  So, how is that possible if television is so bad for falling asleep?

What I discovered many years ago in a crude fashion was that removing the bright blue frequencies of light rendered my tv screen effectively harmless to my circadian cycle.  Years ago, I would manually dim the brightness, adjust the color, and dim the backlight on my tv every night before falling asleep to it.  I have never been able to fall asleep easily in anything but a dead-silent environment (which I rarely if ever have), so the tv gave me just enough white noise to tune out and doze off.  As time went by, I noticed that this worked MUCH better if I watched some recorded program (without commercials) than a random on-air tv show.  This was for several reasons but primarily because  1) Commercials will invariably come BLASTING on at some point and ruin your smooth transition to sleep no matter how effective your so-called stable volume tv feature works; it’s never good enough and 2) Content matters - watching some action movie is not conducive to falling asleep – you want something with a quieter composure and minimal action.  An old movie generally works well while the last James Bond film will not.  Generally, the older the content, the better it will work because it was likely made before today’s millisecond attention span lowest intelligence common denominator audience became the norm.  The world used to be a quieter, calmer place, and that’s what you want before bed, not the latest episode of Real Housewives. 

As time went by, I discovered that I could even watch the same thing countless times and always be asleep at a certain point.  There is one old episode of Columbo that I must have watched before bed 100 times and still have not gotten to the end to see how it ended.  It becomes a kind of sleep-inducing ritual that just works.  I also started setting the tv’s timer to shut off after 60 or 90 minutes so that it was completely off and dark when I got to sleep.  This can make a real difference depending on the TV and content being watched.

When you remove the bright blue and white light from a tv display and dim it, it starts to look a bit like a fireplace as far as brightness and color goes.  In a recent study, it was shown quite conclusively that people fall asleep faster next to a fire than with nothing nearby.  This is undoubtedly an innate mechanism etched into our minds from thousands of years our ancestors spent out on the plains.  I have actually found that the color and brightness adjusted screen of a tv has a very similar effect.  Not only that, but a video of a fire on such a screen can really put you to sleep fast.  I learned that around the holidays one year. 

In recent years, software manufacturers have picked up on this need to start dimming the displays we look at as the sun goes down.  One excellent such product is f.lux, which I have installed on all my computer screens at home (both Mac and PC version available as well as for Android devices) .  As the sun goes down, this free app removes the blue and white light from my screens and dims them based on the sunset and sunrise in my local area.  Sometime after sunrise, it gradually brings them back up.  For years, Apple wouldn’t let f.lux into the iTunes app store and recently we all found out why when Apple built similar functionality into it’s IOS operating system with a feature called NightShift, which does exactly the same thing.

In a few years, every device you have with a screen will have this kind of functionality built into it.  At my home, they all do already, though as an IT specialist I’ve had to do a bit of hacking to get it that way.  A great added feature of f.lux is that it works with WiFi connected light bulbs made by Philips called Hue.  As f.lux dims my screens starting at sunset, it also dims every light in my house in a coordinated fashion so that, effectively, I can still see all that I need to, read, work, etc. but a synthetic sunset takes place in my house and my ability to sleep and wake at the proper times are optimized.  This is clearly, I believe, the way of the future.

On a recent vacation I was going to bed in a hotel room of a 5 star hotel and discovered that I could not adjust the BLAZING bright tv there.  I ended up using my f.lux equipped laptop instead for my nightly sleep-inducing viewing.  That incident, however, really made me aware of how terrible it would be to try to get to sleep using an unadjusted tv.  Already there are devices that can be connected inline to an HDMI port to strip out the problem light shades, but there is no doubt that the ability to filter out these wavelengths of light is coming to the next generation of TVs and all screen-based devices.  Another approach to this problem has been made in the development of blue light filtering glasses.  I’ve always found it disturbingly comfortable to fall asleep wearing my glasses, mainly because they are expensive.  However, I have avoided these special glasses because I think falling asleep with them on is more likely to lead to rolling onto them and waking up and I try to implement only solutions that will get me all the way to sleep until the next morning. For others, this may be fine and certainly in an environment where you cannot filter the tv light it may be the only option.

So, at the end of the day (literally…) watching tv to get to sleep is fine so long as you have the problematic wavelengths of light filtered out, the volume under control, the right content, and a sleep timer set.  Give it a try and see how it works for you.





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