Leaving the TV on during bedtime decreases melatonin production and disrupts the restorative stages of your sleep cycle.
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Whether you find it difficult to fall asleep without background noise or can't resist turning on another episode of your favorite show before you close your eyes, many people watch television before bed. If you're in this group and have noticed you often wake up feeling less than well-rested, your nightly TV habit may be to blame. The light emitted from the device can be harmful to your quality of sleep for several factors, including its impact on melatonin production and rapid eye movement (REM) sleep.

Why People Sleep With the Television On 

It's easy to become dependent on the TV as a sleep aid. "Many people get into the habit of falling asleep with the TV on, as they feel the background noise lulls them to sleep or provides a necessary distraction for those who tend to have racing thoughts at bedtime," says Wendy Troxel, PhD, clinical psychologist and certified behavioral sleep medicine specialist. 

In addition to being a comfort, the gentle blare of the TV is, for some, simply part of a regimen. According to a report by the National Sleep Foundation, watching TV is the most popular bedtime ritual for United States adults, and was cited as a routine by 52.7 percent of sleepers. The same poll found that people who look at screens before bedtime report a poorer quality of sleep than those who don't.

Tired young latin woman watch tv before fall asleep
Credit: GETTY IMAGES

How the Television Impacts Your Sleep Quality 

Despite being seen as a necessity for falling asleep, leaving the TV on at night can be detrimental to your quality of rest for a handful of reasons. 

It Decreases Melatonin Production

Like computers and cell phones, TV emits blue light—a wavelength of light comparable to the sun. "This wavelength of light is most disruptive to melatonin production," says Susan Malone, PhD, MSN, sleep researcher and assistant professor at NYU Rory Meyers College of Nursing. "Our internal biological clocks cannot discern that this is coming from the TV instead of the sun, hence melatonin levels are decreased and our natural circadian rhythms are disrupted." Melatonin is released about three to four hours after blue light disappears, so if exposure to the TV is extended, the production of melatonin is delayed.

It Stimulates Your Brain While You Sleep

Your brain continues to process the content you watch before bedtime as you sleep, which is why it's important to be aware of the type of media you're consuming when watching TV at night. "Distressing, exciting, or scary content—or a show that ends in a cliff-hanger—can make it really hard to settle into good, quality sleep because our brains are continuing to process that content," says Troxel. "Such emotional activation prior to bed can disrupt the quality of sleep." Instead, reserve shows that may activate the brain for the early evening hours or daytime.

It Disrupts the REM Cycle

REM sleep happens about an hour into the sleep cycle, and is when you typically have detailed dreams. "Having the TV on can disrupt all aspects of the sleep-wake cycle, including REM sleep," says Troxel. "Highly disturbing or scary content can lead to nightmares, which most often happen during REM sleep." This stage is also highly associated with memory consolidation. Even low levels of sound can keep your brain from settling into the restorative stages of sleep needed for cognitive functioning.

Alternatives to Sleeping With the Television On

You may find it hard to give up the soothing sounds of the TV while you sleep. Instead of giving it up cold turkey, try a few alternatives that are also known to help people find sleep faster.

Use a White Noise Machine

If you need background noise to fall asleep, consider opting for a white noise machine rather than utilizing the TV. With options ranging from a soothing waterfall to falling rain, these devices provide constant sound without emitting light. "We live in a light-polluted world as it is, and that can have profound effects on our circadian rhythms and our health more broadly, so limiting light exposure at night is really critical to support sleep health, as well as overall health and well-being," says Troxel.

Set a Timer on Your Television

You don't have to forgo TV before bed altogether. "If TV cannot be avoided, set a timer for the TV to turn off so the light and noise are not on all night long," says Malone. This will decrease the amount of time you're exposed to blue light and keep the content from disrupting your dreams. "Watching TV on an actual TV screen rather than a tablet or phone may also lessen the amount of blue light exposure," says Malone.

Consume Alternative Media

Replace your nighttime TV ritual with something that doesn't emit light. "Reading a book (not on an electronic device) or listening to a calming podcast are potential alternatives," says Malone. "At least these activities do not increase your exposure to the melatonin suppressing blue light."

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