The unique ‘comfort media’ we use to fall asleep and why it works
It started in college, around five years ago. A long-time fan of prank call compilations, Otis Anderson stumbled upon an eight-hour prank call highlight reel that he listened to for so long that he fell asleep, which quickly became routine. With prank calls, “It’s funny, it’s easy, it’s light,” he says.
Today, Anderson, 28, continues to regularly fall asleep to prank calls. It’s such a part of his routine that by this point, “my girlfriend tolerates it,” he laughs.
Listening to prank calls might make for a somewhat unusual pre-bed routine, but Anderson is far from the only person using “comfort” media as a sleep aid. On Reddit, there are active threads detailing how and why people use shows, often Friends, Curb Your Enthusiasm, and The Office, to doze off.
“I love listening to shows I’ve seen 100 times to go to sleep,” a user named ItsJustMeMaggie posted in a Reddit forum dedicated to Seinfeld. “You don’t have to look at the TV, you just listen and picture the scenes in your head until you doze. I like doing this with Frasier too.” Name your favorite show, and you can probably find an online community that relies on it as a form of digital Ambien.
A tip from Hatch: For entertaining to fall asleep to without the blue light from a TV or a screen, check out “Pillow Talk,” an all-new audio offering from Hatch+
Allison Eden, Ph.D., an associate professor at Michigan State University, studies how media impacts behavior and well-being. One of her areas of interest is the use of ‘comfort media’ as a way for people to get to sleep. “The overwhelming narrative is that any media before bed is bad,” she says, primarily because by watching an episode (or episodes) of your favorite show, you’re likely delaying bedtime. In her research, however, she’s found it’s not that simple.
Instead, much depends on the individual as well as the type of media they’re choosing to consume before bed. For people with high or even just general anxiety, “turning to a narrative can really help distract from our own thoughts,” she says. This is particularly true for media that is familiar, if not in content then at least in style and format. “I think the sweet spot is [a show that’s] not going to push bedtime for you,” Eden says. Whereas a new, cliffhanger-packed thriller might keep you awake and guessing what happens next, a show you’ve already seen multiple times can be distracting and lulling.
READ MORE: Hatch’s VP of Content, Natalie Mooallem explains why “Pillow Talk” is a “new category of hosted audio that makes that unwind time just before you fall asleep interesting but not too activating.” Read her story here
Could our growing societal need for connection help explain why shows like Friends, Seinfeld, and The Office — all sitcoms that center around close relationships — are such popular sleep aids? Based on conversations with her college students, Eden believes the second-hand warmth of watching close friendships play out onscreen is a big part of these shows’ draw as comfort media. “College is a really big time of isolation for a lot of these kids — they just moved, they're in a new place, they might not have all their friends around,” she says. “Friends makes them feel less alone.”
Eden doesn’t think there’s anything inherently wrong about using media as a sleep aid in this way, although if media consumption before bed is delaying or interfering with your sleep, it’s probably time for an adjustment. And as we pass through different life stages — be it a new job, having kids, or just contending with higher levels of anxiety — something that worked at one point may no longer make sense. “Whenever those sorts of life changes happen, you need to reassess your sleep habits, which might include reassessing your media habits,” Eden says.
That said, if a nightly viewing of Seinfeld or a couple of chapters of a fantasy series or, yes, prank call compilations help you get to sleep, well — “there’s no reason to change it if it’s working,” Eden says. Just do your best to remove any feelings of guilt. “Shame is really counterproductive,” she says, as evidenced by a study she co-authored that found when people feel bad about their media consumption, the guilt can negate any positive, restorative influences we get from watching or reading something we like. “If it's your habit, if this is functional for you, if you're able to meet your social, relational, familial needs with your media use intact, then I don't think there's any sense in getting stressed out about it,” she says.
As for Anderson and his prank videos? “ I sleep like a rock,” he says.