Do you fall asleep with the TV on every night? Here's what experts say about the habit.

Some people can't sleep without the TV turned on. Is that a problem? (Getty Creative)
Some people can't sleep without the TV turned on. Is that a problem? (Getty Creative)

Whether it's the nightly news or an old Friends episode they've seen 40 times, many people say they are lulled to sleep by the television. In fact, some can’t imagine falling asleep without it. If you’re one such sleeper, you may be wondering if your nightly habit is actually good for you — or if it could ultimately be interrupting your sleep. After all, we’ve long been told that screens at night can disrupt our natural sleep cycles and keep us awake longer than we may want.

So — to TV or not to TV? Experts say the answer is a bit complicated. Here’s what you need to know.

Why can some people fall asleep with the TV on?

Television is loud, and typically, people need quiet to sleep. Why then are some people soothed by something like a sitcom with a laugh track soundtracking their slumber? Aric Prather, a psychologist who treats insomnia, tells Yahoo Life that it’s not exactly clear why some people can fall asleep with a TV on, while others can’t. However, he says our brain can limit sensory processing that allows us to sleep even if there is noise in the background. “Some people are more sensitive than others, and some stimuli are more alerting,” Prather explains.

Molly Atwood, assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Johns Hopkins University, tells Yahoo Life that the reason most people are comforted by the TV is that it provides background noise that allows them to calm or distract their mind. “We have a system in our body that's similar to the hunger drive — the longer we're awake, the more of an appetite we have for sleep," she says. "But if we are in an anxious state, or if our ‘fight or flight system’ is activated, that can override our body's drive for sleep.”

If someone’s mind is too active, Atwood says, that can override their sleep drive. Television can allow people to focus on something else, so they can avoid the thoughts that may keep them awake. “They feel more relaxed and then sleep is easier to come,” she notes.

Nicole Carmona, a clinical postdoctoral fellow with the Stanford Sleep Health and Insomnia Program, tells Yahoo Life that some people struggle with "performance anxiety" when it's time to fall asleep; the pressure is too much. “Under these circumstances, the TV can distract the individual from any anxious thoughts they may have about falling asleep,” she says.

Is it bad to fall asleep with the TV on?

Dr. Meena Khan, a sleep medicine physician at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center tells Yahoo Life that if someone is having issues with poor sleep, TV can be a culprit. “Watching TV can delay going to bed, especially if the person watching is engaged in the program that is on,” she says. She adds that those who struggle with insomnia also want to make sure their brain associates their bed with sleeping — not spending time awake watching TV, which can affect future nights’ rest.

While our bodies do have that system in place to filter out sounds as we sleep, they can’t remove all the noise. Extreme volume or light changes, such as an explosion on a TV show, can startle us awake, disrupting our sleep.

What you watch before bed may also impact how well you sleep, says Carmona. Content that is particularly emotional can lead you to feel more awake and engaged, which can stop you from relaxing enough to fall asleep. While this will vary from person to person, Carmona says to avoid shows, movies or content like news programs that “increase feelings of fear, anxiety, tension or anger close to bedtime.”

Mostly, however, falling asleep with the TV on every night can signal that there may be something stopping you from sleeping naturally. “If you are having difficulties and you feel like TV is the only option you have to get to sleep, it may make sense to talk to somebody like a sleep specialist to come up with methods to manage anxiety or quiet your mind, because there are a lot of effective treatments and tools,” Atwood says.

Is there a better way to watch TV before bed?

Atwood notes that it’s important to consider the impact of light on your sleep, as intense blue or white light can suppress our body’s release of melatonin, which helps shut down alertness and allow sleepiness to take over. If you’re watching TV on a computer or a tablet, that light is closer to your face, which is why Atwood says that if you have to watch something before bed, watch it on a TV that’s farther away from you.

Setting a timer on your television can also be helpful. This ensures that the TV is off when you finally doze off, reducing later interruptions.

In general, Atwood recommends that you limit the time you spend watching TV in bed. People can become conditioned to associate the bed with wakefulness, rather than sleep, which can affect sleep on future nights. Creating a routine that focuses on rest and relaxation, rather than television, may help you more easily doze off down the line.