Netflix Declares War on Sleep, Its Biggest 'Competitor'

Ryan Gamble has wires applied to his head by lab technologist Amy Bender in preparation for a polysomnographic recording system demonstration at Washington State University Spokane's Sleep and Performance Research Center on December 13, 2006. Getty Images / Jeff T. Green

So you chose to binge all of Stranger Things season 2 on Netflix this weekend. Maybe you missed some sleep in the process. The streaming service's leadership certainly hopes you did.

At the ideas festival Summit LA17 on November 3, as reported by Fast Company, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings told the crowd that he's very aware of how people consume his platform's original content. And to ensure users binge, binge and binge some more, Hastings has his sights set on besting a unique foe.

"You get a show or a movie you're really dying to watch and you end up staying up late at night, so we actually compete with sleep," Hastings said, adding triumphantly, "And we're winning!"

Hastings's comments were an escalation in his war on your body's urge to get a little shut-eye. On an earnings call in May, he said that Netflix is "competing with sleep on the margin."

What has stepped up Netflix's fight with sleep is a new, much more intense cousin to binge-watching: "binge-racing." That's where people watch an entire series within 24 hours of it being released. Stranger Things Season 2 debuted on October 27. If you were finished with Elevenand the crew by October 28, you're among the group of die-hard viewers Hastings covets.

Claire Foy and Matt Smith share a moment during the filming of Season 2 of Netflix's "The Crown." Netflix

So what exactly happens, biologically, if you habitually binge Netflix instead of getting enough sleep or doing something else, like reading a book or going outside?

Binge-watching can have harmful effects on your body and sleep cycle. And, interestingly, a recent study indicated that binge-watching a single show has a more profoundly negative effect on your sleep quality than watching the same number of episodes of different shows. That means there's something particularly harmful about the Netflix model, which encourages you to "turn your brain off" and speed-watch a series in a single evening.

In May, the American Academy of Sleep Medicine released a list of suggestions for habitual binge-watchers. Among the tips are setting an episode limit for an evening, taking a break between episodes and turning off all digital screens at least 30 minutes before bedtime.

There is also evidence that binge-watching has a relationship with mental health. Before Netflix moved its collection to Instant Watch in 2007, staying in to watch a TV show for 10 hours was an act tied culturally to depression. Now our culture has shifted to assume that Netflix's viral sensations—Stranger Things, House of Cards, even Fuller House—are best enjoyed using the binge model. According to The Guardian, the stigma around binge-watching as a practice has decreased significantly and has continued to decline every year Netflix's service has been available.

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"Knights of Sidonia," a Netflix anime series, is both critically acclaimed and beloved by fans of the medium. Netflix

Data on Netflix and mental health suggest that many viewers feel empty, let down or hollow after finishing a full season in one sitting. A Texas A&M University study in 2015 found that people binge-watching shows on Netflix reported higher feelings of loneliness after finishing a season.

That makes sense. For all the jokes we make about "Netflix and chill" being a ruse for an intimate date, binge-watching is commonly done alone. To binge-race an entire season of Stranger Things by yourself, you need to spend nine straight hours in isolation, sitting or lying down without any physical activity, deprived of sunlight and fresh air.

Hastings seems acutely aware of all of this. For how all-in he is on disrupting sleep, the CEO told the tech summit crowd that biology isn't his service's only opponent.

"Sometimes employees at Netflix think, Oh my God, we're competing with FX, HBO or Amazon," he said. "But think about if you didn't watch Netflix last night: What did you do? There's such a broad range of things that you did to relax and unwind, hang out and connect—and we compete with all of that."

If Netflix has its way, watching TV episodes back to back until you pass out will become everyone's primary way of unwinding after a long day. We don't have a full picture of what that will do to our bodies and minds, but the early data doesn't look good.