On a recent quarterly earnings call with reporters, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings surprised some listeners when he called out a surprising competitor for his company’s streaming services: sleep.
“When you watch a show from Netflix and you get addicted to it, you stay up late at night… we’re competing with sleep, on the margin,” Hastings said.
He’s right. There’s no question, with the vast world of entertainment now being delivered to our living rooms and bedrooms, sleep faces whole new levels of competition. This is part of a bigger, broader encroachment of technology into nighttime and sleep time that’s been happening since electricity led to the proliferation of artificial light well over a century ago. The faster technology progresses, the more artificial light sources and stimulation exist that can undermine sleep. The past several decades have seen a cascade of personal technology that can pose hazards to sleep, when not used in moderation—and in sync with bio time.
To be clear: technology, whether in the form of streaming services, or your ever-present smartphone, isn’t inherently bad for sleep. Neither is the artificial light that it emits. Daytime light exposure, including the high concentrations of blue light that come from digital screens, help boost alertness, focus, and productivity. It’s artificial light exposure at the wrong times—at night, when the body needs darkness to facilitate sleep—that poses a threat to nightly rest and to your body’s bio clock.
Here’s how binge-watching late into the evening can cause problems:
• Too much light exposure in the evenings delays the release of the sleep hormone melatonin. Laughing through a string of back-to-back episodes of your favorite comedy before bed can leave you wide awake late into the night, and exhausted the next day.
• Irregular bedtimes throw your body’s sleep-wake cycle off its natural bio rhythm. It’s tempting to ignore the clock in favor of just one more installment of that thriller you can’t get enough of. But it’s worth it to resist. A consistent bedtime helps your bio clock stay in sync. You’ll sleep better and night and function better during the day.
• The mental stimulation of your favorite show can fire up your brain just as you most need to relax and unwind.
I like a good House of Cards session as much as anyone. The key to keeping your Netflix habit and sleep out of competition? Like most things with sleep and life, it’s in the timing.
Some chronotypes are more likely than others to fall into a binge-watching routine. Lions may have little trouble powering down the TV—there’s often not a show thrilling enough to compete with the pleasure of an early bedtime for this chronotype. Wolves, on the other hand, can easily find themselves awake at 1 a.m., on the other side of a Law & Order binge. Bears are apt to fall asleep on the couch with a comedy rolling in front of them, while Dolphins may turn to episodes of that edgy drama when they’re struggling with insomnia, as they often do.
Whatever your chronotype, go ahead, enjoy some viewing in the evening hours. But give yourself 30-60 minutes before bed to unwind away from your screens, with a pre-sleep ritual that’s quiet and relaxing and gets you to bed on the schedule that best suits your chronotype. And keep the screens out of your bedroom, so you won’t be tempted to drop back in to viewing mode, rather than sleep.
Remember, sleep isn’t just another commodity. It’s different from almost all the other items on your To-Do, or Want-To-Do, list. Like diet and exercise, sleep is foundational to a long and healthy life.
I’m glad to hear Reed Hastings is talking about sleep and how complicated the path to bedtime can be. The more we acknowledge sleep—it’s importance to our health and performance, the challenges we face in getting the quantity and quality of sleep we need—the better off we’ll be.
Michael J. Breus, PhD
The Sleep Doctor™