Feb. 17, 2022 -- Here is some encouraging news for those who enjoy watching television or playing video games at bedtime: A new study finds that contrary to popular belief, media use during the hour before you go to bed may not lead to poor sleep.

In a small study, researchers asked 58 adults ranging in age from 19 to 66 to keep a diary that recorded information about the time they spent with media before going to bed, where in their home they used media, and whether they were doing other activities at the same time.

The participants wore small metal discs attached to their scalp to detect electrical activity of the brain during sleep and capture information, such as when the person fell asleep, total sleep time, and sleep quality.

Media use during the hour before people fell asleep was linked to an earlier bedtime; and, if the participants were using their media while already in bed and were not multitasking, they also got more sleep.

"The takeaway isn’t that everyone can necessarily watch lots of TV before bed and expect to be OK, but a little bit of television or a video game before bed, if it will help you relax, is likely to be potentially beneficial, or at least it won’t harm you if you stop intentionally, don’t allow it to displace bedtime, and keep the session relatively short," says lead study author Morgan Ellithorpe, PhD.

The study was published online Feb. 8 in the Journal of Sleep Research.

Adults vs. Kids

Media use is linked to poor sleep, says Ellithorpe, an assistant professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Delaware.

That perspective is "relatively true,” she says, but most of the research on this issue has been done with children, who have “a strong relationship between media use before bed and poor sleep.”

But adults see more mixed effects, she says.

Ellithorpe lists several reasons why media use might have a negative effect on sleep. The wavelength of the screen’s light may be the culprit, or staying up too late instead of sleeping may be to blame.

Another possibility is the "‘arousal hypothesis,’ meaning that the person has been watching something exciting, maybe with a lot of cliffhangers, something suspenseful, so it’s harder to calm down and fall asleep," she says.

On the other hand, some research suggests that a little media use before bed might not cause problems, especially because not all media is the same. Enjoyable and relaxing media might actually help improve the quality of sleep..

The researchers also found flaws in earlier research. For example, measurements of sleep and media use were "unreliable" because they were based on patients reporting their own experiences, often many days later, and because those studies didn’t pay attention to "specific characteristics of media use and content."

In the current study, participants were asked to complete a 3-day media diary and also had their sleep quality measured using monitors worn in bed at home.

Impact of Binge-Watching

Participants were told to carry their diary and record all media they consumed, either for entertainment or information, including movies, television, YouTube videos, browsing the internet, and listening to music. They were asked to report the name of the program or media item, what time they engaged with it, and how long it lasted.

The researchers did not include social media (including e-mail).

Over 40% of participants said they used media during the hour before bed on at least 1 night. The researchers called the link between pre-bed media use and sleep "complex."

The benefits were reduced by multitasking or use outside of the bed. Also, the longer participants used media, the fewer sleep-related benefits they saw.

"A 2-hour ‘binge session’ was associated with 40 minutes less sleep because people kept pushing back their bedtime so as to continue watching," Ellithorpe says. "This is in line with the sleep displacement hypothesis."

Complex, Nuanced

Commenting on the study for WebMD, Nitun Verma, MD, a sleep doctor at AC Wellness in Cupertino, CA, agrees that "it’s wise to treat social media differently from other media, as the authors have done."

But, he says, "the type of media considered for the study is quite broad. For example, media could be soothing music, online gambling, or intensive video games. These could have very different effects on sleep, perhaps with even stronger effects than the location or timing."

Even with in a single category of media, such as video games, "there may be a varied effect on sleep,” Verma says.

It makes sense, he says, that “active and stimulating media” would have a different effect on sleep than, say, listening to soft music or other “passive” media.

He suggests that a larger study "comparing not just the timing but also content of media would be more authoritative in making the claim that some media use before bed can be beneficial to sleep."

Ellithorpe agrees and says her team looked at what specific movies or games the participants were watching and how much their emotions or intelligence was challenged. "But media use is so complex and disparate that we had too much complexity in that data to statistically interpret that information," she says.

Show Sources

Journal of Sleep Research: “The complicated impact of media use before bed on sleep: Results from a combination of objective EEG sleep measurement and media diaries.”

Morgan Ellithorpe, PhD, assistant professor, Department of Communication, University of Delaware.

Nitun Verma, MD, sleep doctor, AC Wellness, Cupertino, CA; spokesperson, American Academy of Sleep Medicine.

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