Can't Sleep Without the TV On? 7 Reasons Why and How to Stop

You may not be able to sleep without the TV on because you’ve become psychologically dependent on it, you have anxiety, or the noise drowns out other noises.
Published
2024-03-05
12 MINS
Written by
Jeff Kahn, M.S., Rise Science Co-Founder
Reviewed by
Chester Wu, MD, Rise Science Medical Reviewer
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Can't Sleep Without the TV On: Why & How to Stop

  • You may not be able to sleep without the TV on because you’ve developed a psychological dependence on it, you use it to soothe anxiety before bed, because the noise drowns out other more disturbing noises, or because something else is causing sleep problems.
  • Sleeping with the TV on isn’t great for sleep, though. You can wean yourself off by listening to a white noise machine or relaxing music instead, managing anxiety with breathing exercises and other techniques, and improving your sleep hygiene, so you fall asleep faster and wake up less often. 
  • The RISE app can make improving your sleep hygiene easy. It guides you through 20+ sleep hygiene habits each day at the time that makes them more effective for you.

Drifting off to the sound of Friends reruns or the latest Netflix documentary may sound like a relaxing way to fall asleep. But sleeping with the TV on can cause sleep disruption, even if it feels like you’re sleeping fine. 

While tricky, it is a habit you can break and there are healthier swaps to make.

Below, we’ll cover why you can’t sleep without the TV on, why it’s a bad thing, and how you can learn to drift off without the TV. Plus, we’ll cover how the RISE app can help you get a good night’s sleep as you slowly wean yourself off using the TV as a sleep aid — and beyond.

Advice From a Sleep Doctor

Advice From a Sleep Doctor

“From the research we have on screens, light, and noise at night, I wouldn’t recommend sleeping with the TV on,” says Rise Science sleep advisor and medical reviewer, Dr. Chester Wu, a double board certified doctor in psychiatry and sleep medicine.

“If you find it comforting, try listening to relaxing music or white noise instead.”

Why Can’t I Sleep Without the TV On? 

The main reasons you may not be able to sleep without the TV on are because you’ve become psychologically dependent on it, you have anxiety and you find it relaxes you enough to drift off, or the noise of the TV drowns out more disturbing sounds, like traffic. 

Here’s more on why may you need the TV on to fall asleep:

  • You’ve become psychologically dependent on it: You may be so used to sleeping with the TV on that when you try to sleep without it you get anxious and this anxiety keeps you up. This might happen if you’ve been falling asleep to the sound of the TV for years — or even since childhood. On the other hand, you might try to force or control sleep (known as sleep effort) when you try to drift off without the TV, and this sleep effort can exacerbate or perpetuate insomnia.  
  • You’re stressed or anxious: RISE users say stress and anxiety are their biggest barriers to sleep. If you’re feeling anxious, a familiar TV show can be comforting or a new show can provide a distraction to help you relax and drift off. If you don’t like sleeping in darkness, having your room lit by the flickering TV can be soothing, or you may just use the TV for the background noise, as sleeping in silence could leave you ruminating (endlessly worrying) late into the night.
  • The noise drowns out more disturbing sounds: The noise of your favorite sitcom is certainly more relaxing than honking traffic, barking dogs, and noisy neighbors. You may use the TV for auditory masking to drown out these so-called “peak noises.” A constant TV noise can reduce the difference between background noise and peak noise, so you’re less likely to be woken up by these intermittent sound.
  • The placebo effect: You may sleep better with the TV on simply because you believe it helps. If you’ve been sleeping with the TV on for years, this can be a hard connection to break. 
  • You’re sleeping better than you think: Your sleep without the TV may not feel great, but you could be sleeping much better than you think. You may have paradoxical insomnia, or sleep-state misconception, when you feel like your sleep problems are worse than they really are. 
  • False attribution: It’s hard to pinpoint what exactly causes our sleep problems. You might fall asleep faster with the TV on one night, but it’s really because you had less caffeine that day. On the flip side, you might struggle to sleep when you don’t switch on the TV, but that’s because, instead of watching TV, you worked late on a stressful work project. 
  • Something else is causing sleep problems: Similar to the above, your sleep problems may have nothing to do with not turning on the TV. Poor sleep hygiene, being out of sync with your circadian rhythm (your internal clock), a sleep disorder, or a medical condition could be messing with your sleep. It may just feel like the TV is helping, potentially due to the placebo effect. Unfortunately, the sleep deprivation sleeping the TV on can cause (more on that soon) may make some problems — like anxiety or medical conditions — worse, leading to a vicious cycle. 

We cover more reasons it takes you a long time to fall asleep here.

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Is It Bad to Sleep With the TV On?

Yes, it can be bad to sleep with the TV on. The light, noise, and stimulating content can make it harder to fall asleep or they can wake you up in the middle of the night and make it harder to fall back asleep. Blue light from your TV screen can suppress melatonin production and push back your circadian rhythm, messing up your sleep cycle. 

The TV may affect your sleep — and therefore energy levels, health, and performance — without you even realizing it. And with the TV on, you’re more likely to stay up past bedtime binge-watching your current Netflix favorite or as a form of revenge bedtime procrastination to get more me-time after a long day.

Plus, it’s not great to be reliant on something to sleep. If your TV stops working one day, you don’t want to be left with a sleepless night. 

More research is needed, though. Many studies look at the impact of noise and light on sleep, or the impact of electronic devices — like TVs and smartphones — during the day or before bed, not while sleeping. So it’s unclear how much the TV specifically impacts sleep.

The research we have, however, doesn’t bode well for your TV. 

A 2019 study on almost 44,000 women found artificial light at night was associated with higher odds of obesity. That included sleeping with a light or TV on in the room, but also a small night light in the room or a light on outside the room. 

Compared to sleeping in darkness, sleeping with the TV or a light on in the room was linked to gaining 11 pounds or more.

A 2023 study found greater nighttime light exposure was linked to an increased risk of several mental health issues, including depression, anxiety, and a poorer mood. And 2022 research shows light exposure during sleep can lead to a reduced amount of time in deep sleep and rapid-eye-movement sleep (REM sleep). 

It’s not just light exposure, though. Research shows long-term exposure to noise pollution may lead to high blood pressure and even heart attacks. This is in the form of environmental and ambient noise, so it’s not clear whether noise from your TV would be as harmful. 

Experts recommend making your bedroom as dark and quiet as possible for the best sleep, and doing relaxing activities before bed — a riveting TV drama may not cut it.

It may not be all bad, though. If you’re using the TV to soothe anxiety or drown out disturbing noises, it may help you get more sleep than you would otherwise. But that doesn’t mean we recommend it — there are many better ways to unwind and drown out noises that don’t come with the downsides that having the TV on does. 

We’ve covered more on how screens before bed affect your sleep here.

Expert tip: Keep an eye on your sleep debt. Sleep debt is the running total of the hours of sleep you owe your body. The more sleep debt you have, the worse you’re going to feel and function. As it’s tricky to know whether you’re really getting enough sleep, you can check your sleep debt to see if sleeping with the TV on causes it to go up or down.  

RISE works out how much sleep debt you have each day, and helps you lower it for more energy. RISE also works out how much sleep you need. This is known as your sleep need and it’s unique to you. 

For example, looking at 1.95 million RISE users aged 24 and up, we found sleep needs ranged from five hours to 11 hours 30 minutes. 

The RISE app can tell you how much sleep you need
The sleep needs of RISE users.

RISE users on iOS 1.202 and above can view their sleep need here and view their sleep debt here.

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How to Sleep Without the TV On? 

You can sleep without the TV on by managing anxiety, making healthy swaps to less disturbing sleep aids, slowly weaning yourself off, reducing disturbing noises, doing a relaxing bedtime routine, improving your sleep hygiene, getting in sync with your circadian rhythm, and speaking to a doctor. 

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Here’s what to do: 

  • Manage anxiety: If you fall asleep with the TV on because it makes you feel safe and relaxed, or you feel anxious without it, try relaxing and managing anxiety in other ways. You could read, journal, do yoga, and work out during the day to feel better come evening. Try doing a brain dump before bed (writing down your worries or tomorrow’s to-do list — writing a to-do list has been shown to help you fall asleep faster). Breathing exercises or progressive muscle relaxation in bed can help if you’re feeling uncomfortable without the TV on or if you need a distraction from racing thoughts. We’ve covered how to sleep with anxiety here. 
  • Slowly wean yourself off: Don’t stress yourself out by forcing yourself to break the TV habit straight away — that won’t do your sleep any favors and may even make it worse. Instead, try gradually making changes. You could start by lowering the volume of your TV and turning down the brightness, playing the TV on a timer so it doesn’t play all night long, wearing an eye mask so the light is less disruptive, or watching TV in bed before turning it off when you’re ready to sleep. 
  • Make healthy swaps: If you need the TV on to sleep, go for relaxing shows (no horror movies in bed) and perhaps something you’ve seen before, so plot twists won’t make you want to keep watching. If you like sleeping with the light, try a low-powered red night light. And if it’s the background noise, try swapping the TV (which comes with light and stimulating content) for relaxing music or white noise. We’ve covered the best sounds for sleep here.
  • Reduce disturbing noises: If you use the TV to drown out noises (or start noticing a noisy environment when you start sleeping without the TV) invest in some earplugs. RISE sleep sounds can also help, such as white noise, nature sounds, and ambient music played on a timer. 
  • Do a relaxing bedtime routine: This is important for everyone, but especially if you’re making a change to your sleep routine or anxiety drives you to turn on the TV. Create a bedtime routine that’s relaxing. This might involve reading, meditating, listening to a podcast, taking a warm bath or shower, or watching TV in another room.
  • Improve your sleep hygiene: Sleep hygiene are the set of daily behaviors that impact your sleep. Follow RISE’s 20+ sleep hygiene reminders to give yourself the best chance of falling and staying asleep — with or without the TV. These reminders include when to stop drinking coffee, when to get and avoid bright light, and when to put on blue-light blocking glasses — something you might want to consider if you have the TV on before bed.
  • Get more light during the day: This good sleep hygiene behavior deserves its own shout-out. The more light you get during the day, the less sensitive you’ll be to it come evening. This’ll help reduce how much having the TV on impacts your sleep if you’re still using it. This isn’t a get-out-of-jail-free card, though, you should still aim to reduce evening bright light exposure for the best sleep. 
  • Get in sync with your circadian rhythm: This will help you feel sleepy at bedtime, making it easier to drift off with or without the TV. Sync up by keeping a regular sleep schedule. Check RISE to see when your body wants to sleep.
  • Speak to a healthcare professional: Get medical advice about anxiety, sleep disorders, or medical conditions that could be messing with your sleep. A professional can help you solve the root cause of your sleep problems, rather than masking them with the TV. 
RISE app screenshot of sleep hygiene habit reminders
The RISE app tells you when to do 20+ good sleep habits.

RISE users on iOS 1.202 and above can set up their 20+ in-app habit notifications here

Unplug Before Bed, Without the TV On 

If you can’t fall asleep without the TV on, it may be because you’re psychologically dependent on it, you have anxiety, or the noise drowns out a snoring partner or busy road outside. It may also have nothing to do with the TV and it’s actually poor sleep hygiene or being out of sync with your circadian rhythm that’s keeping you up.

To break the habit of sleeping with the TV on, figure out what problem it solves for you and look into less sleep-disrupting fixes. For example, breathing exercises are a better way of calming anxiety and white noise can drown out outside noises with less disruption. 

Use RISE to make healthy sleep hygiene changes and get in sync with your circadian rhythm. These two changes can help you fall asleep faster and stay asleep longer. 

RISE uses notice the difference: 

“I’m sleeping better regardless of time asleep (we all know life happens) because RISE will give me notifications about when to stop drinking coffee and alcohol, and when my ideal time to go to bed is.” Read the review.

And this can happen fast — 80% of users get better sleep within five days.

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