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Neuropsych

Bedtime procrastination: Why we choose scrolling over sleeping

We know sleep is more important than aimlessly scrolling on social media or checking our email for the 50th time. So, why do we do it?
bedtime procrastination
Credit: VadimGuzhva / Adobe Stock
Key Takeaways
  • It's past midnight. As you lay in bed, instead of sleeping, you are aimlessly scrolling the internet.
  • If that sounds familiar, you might have "revenge bedtime procrastination."
  • This phenomenon affects a wide variety of people — from parents of young kids to workers in high-stress jobs — who use sleeping hours to reclaim lost "me-time."

Imagine cozying up in your bed after a long day. You scroll through your favorite social media apps for what feels like ten minutes, but then you realize hours have passed. It’s now 2:30 am, and you know you need to get some sleep to wake up refreshed for work. But you just can’t get yourself to stop scrolling and turn in for the night. You promise yourself just five more minutes — then it’s 3:00 am.

You wake up tired the next morning and go to work groggy but do the same thing again that night. You know you need the rest, but you still stay up and sacrifice sleep to scroll aimlessly on your smartphone.

If you can relate to this scenario, you’re not alone. Now called “revenge bedtime procrastination,” the Sleep Foundation describes this phenomenon as the tendency “to sacrifice sleep for leisure time that is driven by a daily schedule lacking in free time.”

What makes people want to stay up doing nothing?

People who spend most of their waking hours working experience a severe lack of “me time” in which they can be free of responsibilities. Nowadays, some people feel guilty even for resting, so there is a strong craving for uninterrupted personal time. 

Daphne Lee, the journalist whose viral tweet popularized the term, describes revenge bedtime procrastination as an attempt to regain control of our lives. If you are spending most of the day working for someone else, following someone else’s orders, and disciplining yourself into doing what you’re “supposed” to do, it is only natural to desire freedom — at least for the few quiet hours around midnight. 

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Some people find that sense of control by doing things often thought of as lazy or a waste of time — for instance, scrolling through social media or binge-watching TV shows. By indulging in these activities in the wee hours of the night when the world is asleep, people get a sense of “revenge” and control over how they spend their time.

Revenge bedtime procrastination is experienced differently by various groups, despite being motivated by the same reasons. Parents of young children spend most of their day trying to balance work and childcare, so there is a powerful desire to spend some time alone, free of all obligations. For many parents, this is only possible at night when work hours are over and the kids are asleep. 

Likewise, college students with a demanding class schedule, employees in high-stress jobs, and workers who put in a lot of overtime may be particularly susceptible to bedtime procrastination.

Bedtime procrastination — or just a night owl?

When the term became popular, many people were shocked to know there was such a thing. One of the most common remarks was: “I thought I was a night owl.” It’s a point to consider. Are people really driven to stay up for “me time” — or do they just prefer nighttime?

One way to differentiate between the two is to notice the consequences. People engaging in bedtime procrastination do so at the expense of their health and work, which may eventually land them in the doctor’s or unemployment office. On the other hand, night owls tend to prefer working or simply staying up at night. Such people may feel that they’re more creative, productive, or happy during the late hours, so they may make a conscious choice to stay up and adjust their schedules accordingly. The biggest difference is night owls don’t necessarily feel the strong desire to rebel by reclaiming “me time” at any expense. 

However, it is possible the two phenomena are related. More research is needed to confirm if night owls are more likely to engage in revenge bedtime procrastination. Perhaps, one day, we’ll get around to doing that.

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