How binge-watching and cliffhangers affect your mind and sleep

Woman binge-watching TV in bedroom. (Getty Images)
What TV show did you last binge? (Getty Images)

From Bridgerton to Love Island, it's no secret there's been some pretty addictive TV out as of late. Over four fifths (82%) of Brits find it frustrating waiting for the next episode of something, while 59% prefer to watch TV on demand rather than live, according to a new study from ScS.

But while we may be absentmindedly living in a culture of binge-watching – albeit shaken up slightly with staggered releases (though this still typically allows for many hours in one go) – what effect is this having on our wellbeing?

Here, psychologist Laura Geige and sleep expert and founder of The Sleep Site Dave Gibson, as well as psychiatrist at Delamere (an addiction rehab centre) Dr Catherine Carney, share what you need to know. Plus, how to still enjoy watching the TV you love, which can help to release stress, in a mindful way.

An Anglo-Caribbean man is concentrating on watching an unseen TV as he also reaches for a potato chip in a bowl on the coffee table in a modern living room
There's some great TV out, but we need to think about how we consume it. (Getty Images)

"Binge-watching can have complex effects on mental health and sleep," says Geige. "While it provides escapism and entertainment, prolonged viewing can disrupt circadian rhythms and increase feelings of guilt or anxiety due to time displacement from other responsibilities.

"The accessibility of entire seasons in one sitting fosters an expectation of instant gratification, potentially contributing to reduced patience and attention spans in daily life."

Gibson agrees, particularly when binge-watching is 'unplanned'. "When we watch more TV than intended, it can lead to a sense of losing control, which can affect our mental wellbeing. Psychologically, there is a significant difference between choosing to spend a certain amount of time on an activity and losing track of time due to the compelling nature of a TV series

"Additionally, the extended screen time often reduces the amount of sleep we get, leading to sleep deprivation."

Dr Carney points out COVID lockdowns made binge-watching more 'acceptable'. "While binge-watching TV shows does not immediately cause alarm bells, compared to phone usage, it can silently become detrimental to your mental health," says the psychiatrist.

"New research found a significant and positive connection between people who regularly binge-watched TV and psychological problems, such as with increased levels of loneliness, anxiety, depression, stress and insomnia. And it is a vicious circle. The more lonely and depressed you are, the more likely you are to binge-watch TV."

Dr Carney also points out large amounts of time sitting down alone watching a screen can lead to a desire for other taboos, like binge-eating and drinking, while it can also have an impact on physiological health, like raised heart rate, increased blood pressure and reduced blood flow to the gut. "Responses to exciting events can lead to activation of the sympathetic nervous system, which is the body’s stress response. At other times it can lead to the release of dopamine, the reward hormone, causing the brain to seek more of this.

"A craving for just one more episode is just one more reward."

Woman holding laptop lying on bed looking at TV shows
Find it difficult to wait between episodes? (Getty Images)

"The adoption of a split-release model by streaming services reflects strategic considerations aimed at maximising viewer engagement and retention," explains Geige of the intention behind it.

"This approach not only sustains subscriber interest but also generates buzz and discussion around the show. Furthermore, the split-release model aligns with changing viewing habits, catering to audiences accustomed to binge-watching while also preserving the tradition of serialised storytelling."

This new model often utilises cliffhangers to keep viewers engaged between episodes. However, the psychologist warns, "The conclusion of a show on a cliffhanger triggers a complex array of emotions. The abrupt suspension of narrative resolution induces a sense of suspense and curiosity. However, this heightened emotional state may also evoke feelings of frustration or anxiety as viewers grapple with uncertainty while the prolonged suspense may elevate stress levels and impede emotional regulation."

It is the re-emergence of weekly releases that helps create healthier engagement. "This format fosters anticipation, discussion, and reflection between episodes, promoting a sense of community engagement," adds Geige.

With cliffhangers, can come spoilers, which Geige explains "provide a sense of certainty and control in an uncertain narrative landscape, offering reassurance and predictability while satisfying curiosity and the desire for immediate gratification.

"However, the pursuit of spoilers may also stem from a desire for social validation or status, as individuals seek to engage in discussions and speculation within fan communities."

Bridgerton and Love Island. (Left: Netflix, Right: ITV via Getty Images)
From dramas to reality. (Left: Netflix, Right: ITV via Getty Images)

You often hear people refer to Love Island as 'brain-rotting', but Dr Carney flags series like Bridgerton are not worlds apart.

"Both create an idealistic setting, full of young, beautiful people, potentially with the world at their feet. Both are removed from real, everyday life and are set in gorgeous surroundings, created for entertainment and escape from reality. Both encourage the viewer to invest in relationships and personalities and can be seen as a way of distracting from everyday stressors and anxieties," explains the psychiatrist.

"However, where a show like Bridgerton has been written with a storyline to evoke emotions, thoughts and opinions, reality TV shows, like Love Island, offer a quicker dopamine hit. Reality TV requires less critical thinking to process and enjoy. These tend to focus more on physical appearances, competitions and, often, explosive and argumentative characters making for an addictive show to watch.

"While many would say this offers the opportunity to switch off, the addictive nature of these types of shows mean you are constantly invested in it in some way. This puts you at high risk of negative impacts on your self-esteem, confidence, and experiences of 'normal' life, such as with complex issues like marriage, sexual morality, and power. It provides someone with a chance to escape through the consumption of something, which is a not so dissimilar practice to consuming drugs or alcohol."

Gibson points out we may find it harder to sleep after binge-watching several hours of a scary horror film or TV show like The Walking Dead (or even intellectual shows, which can keep the mind active close to bedtime). Watching something funny or light-hearted after really can help, as our brain will cling more to recent memories. Or better still, instead, to set a positive tone.

Family, father, mother and sons sitting on the living room’s sofa and watching TV together.
TV can and should still be something to enjoy. (Getty Images)

Dr Carney still believes "there is no doubt that watching TV can be a good outlet for stress when done in moderation". Her actionable tips to try include:

  • Limit prolonged times watching to once or twice a week, or break up sessions with a walk in the fresh air or get some physical activity

  • Avoid eating main meals with the television on as this will decrease the chance of mindless eating, or drinking (alcohol). If you are wanting a snack, try something healthier like fruit or nuts, thus forming a positive association with watching TV

  • Watch TV as a social activity with friends or the family, to mitigate loneliness and other harmful mental health impacts. Watching together can strengthen relationships, create conversational openings and reduce watch time

  • Mix up watching TV late at night with opting to read a book instead for an hour. This will gradually help you improve your sleep quality and reduce the excessive need to get that dopamine hit late at night

  • Set a task or challenge for every ad break (like completing a sudoku), which can be a playful way to encourage mindfulness

Gibson also suggests choosing programmes in a way that matches your intention, e.g. for relaxation, education or entertainment.