The lights are out, the room is quiet, and you’re in bed. This environment should lull you to sleep, but there’s one major distraction: the smartphone glued to your hand. You want to get some rest, yet you simply can’t stop scrolling. But why is that? Well, psychologists may finally have the answer!
It happens to the best of us, doesn’t it? We lie down and can’t fall asleep instantly, so we reach for our smartphones. “Just a minute,” we think to ourselves as we unlock the screen. But 60 seconds of scrolling is never what actually happens. Instead, we look down for a half-hour, an hour, 90 minutes…
The next thing we know, we look up at the clock, and it’s no longer bedtime – it’s halfway through the night! This issue affects the younger generation of adults, in particular. A 2019 study by the phone company OnePlus found that 15 percent of millennials use their phones between 11:00 p.m. and 3:00 a.m. And 86 percent reported phone-related sleep interruption. Amazingly, only 9 percent of those in the 55-and-older age group had the latter problem.
It’s not necessarily our phones’ fault that we scroll until the wee hours of the morning, though. If you can’t put down your device, it could actually be down to a psychological phenomenon that has been uncovered in recent years. Perhaps you’ve fallen victim to this cycle, too. And now, it’s time to find out why!
There’s a popular colloquial phrase that people use to describe their endless nocturnal scrolling: it’s called revenge bedtime procrastination. And this odd moniker resonates with a lot of people. This is especially true in the phrase’s country of origin – China – where it became a widely known descriptor of the activity.
A reporter named Daphne K. Lee dug through internet archives to find the first time a person described their night-time scrolling as “revenge bedtime procrastination.” According to the BBC, the earliest example she found appeared in a blog post from November 2018. But Lee and other experts assume that the term had been around for a while before that mention.
Revenge bedtime procrastination has caught on in countries outside of China, too. That’s because so many people around the world can relate to its significance. You can gather some of the meaning just by reading it. Though where does the revenge come in? And precisely why would someone procrastinate at bedtime?
The BBC notes that “revenge night-time procrastination” applies to people who work long hours. They get home late, eat dinner, shower and then hop into bed. But rather than going to sleep immediately, they scroll through their phones for a few hours. This is apparently an attempt to reclaim a piece of their personal life that their jobs have taken away.
It’s not like these revenge bedtime procrastinators don’t know what they’re doing to themselves, either. Anyone doing that is surely aware that they will be tired the next morning – especially if there’s another 12-hour workday ahead. Though spending a few hours doing something for themselves feels like an act of resistance against an all-work schedule.
So, we know what a revenge bedtime procrastinator is doing – they’re reclaiming a bit of their day for themselves! Yet that doesn’t quite answer the question of why. What is the point in ruining the day ahead by scrolling endlessly now? Well, psychologists have looked into it, and they can explain why we would rather look at our phones instead of getting some much-needed kip.
Chances are, you already know why you shouldn’t be looking at your smartphone before bed. There’s actually a pretty good explanation behind it. And no, it’s not the same science that explains why we choose to look at our phones in the first place. A late-night scroll can send the wrong signals to your brain – keeping you awake for longer.
A sleep disorder specialist called Harneet Walia, MD, explained to the Cleveland Clinic that it all comes down to the light that illuminates your phone’s screen. The blue tint apparently mimics the hue of daylight, which sends a very clear signal to your brain to stay awake. Think about it: what are humans wired to do when the sun comes up?
If you look at your phone during the day, the blue light can refresh you a bit and make you feel more alert. But at night time, this is the opposite of what you want to feel. You go to bed so you can wind down and doze off, not to get a tech-caused second wind!
Still, there’s more at play here than just the blue light, according to Walia. The glow can reduce your body’s production of melatonin – the hormone that regulates your natural sleep cycle. If your body doesn’t receive the signal that it’s night time and, therefore, time to start making melatonin and fall asleep, then you’ll have trouble dozing off.
So, looking at your phone just before bed can make it harder to fall asleep because it makes your body believe it’s daytime and that you need to stay awake. But that’s not all. There are other reasons why it’s a bad idea to look at a screen before getting some shut-eye.
Your smartphone was designed to keep you connected and productive. Walia notes that this is precisely what you get from your device – more information to think about and process. You may also start to feel like you have to respond to texts and emails you notice pre-bed.
Walia told the Cleveland Clinic in 2019, “Checking your phone stimulates the brain so we are more active and awake. Even just a quick check can engage your brain and prolong sleep.” So, checking your cell just before bed will keep your brain churning away – even after you put down your device.
Finally, Walia added that you never know what it is that you’ll see when you look down at your phone. Scrolling down your social feeds might mean that you see news that surprises you or even brightens your mood. And there’s also every chance that an update could make you angry or sad.
Whatever emotions your phone has drummed up, one thing is for sure – they can keep you awake for longer, too. You might feel anxiety after looking at your device, or you might find yourself thinking for hours about what you’ve seen. That’ll easily keep you awake and out of your deepest, most restful sleep cycles.
Finally, the device itself can keep you awake even if you’re not staring at the screen. If you go to bed without your phone silenced, then the notifications will continue to distract you. They could pull you out of sleep or keep you up thinking and stressed out. Imagine hearing your email notifications go off all night. That’ll remind you of how much you have to do tomorrow, which isn’t what you should be thinking about before bed!
Still, none of these negatives have to do with revenge bedtime procrastination – the deliberate act of scrolling rather than going to sleep. Again, this phrase originated in China, where many workers partake in a rigorous schedule known as the 996. This involves clocking in at 9:00 a.m., finishing at 9:00 p.m., and doing so six days a week.
Emma Rao was one such near non-stop worker. She told the BBC in 2020 about her experience working the 996 in Shanghai’s financial sector. The Chinese worker said, “I was almost depressed. I was deprived of all my personal life.” So, Rao would come home and stay up too late on her phone as an act of defiance.
Some nights, Rao would find herself awake past midnight – even though she knew she had to work at least 12 hours the next day. But she’d rather catch up on the news, watch videos and surf the web than go to sleep. That’s because her job had taken over the hours she’d normally devote to herself. Seems pretty understandable, right?
Obviously, Rao wasn’t the only one who used late-night web surfing to reclaim a bit of her personal life. People across China and the world have adopted revenge bedtime procrastination as part of their nightly routines. And now, experts believe that psychology explains why people do this.
According to the BBC, evidence has begun to show why so many people choose to browse their phones instead of going straight to sleep. Yep, you guessed it: workers need to decompress after long days at the office. These people need a break from the pressures of their daily lives, and they crave time to themselves. Coming home and going straight to bed doesn’t provide this crucial stretch to detach.
Sheffield University psychology lecturer Ciara Miller told the BBC, “One of the most important parts of recovery from work is sleep. However, sleep is affected by how well we detach.” That’s why people need – and still partake in – post-work relaxation. And for many, that means lying in bed scrolling when they should be asleep.
Of course, staying up late to reclaim your time isn’t going to serve you well, either. Kelly explained the conundrum, saying, “People are stuck in a Catch-22 when they don’t have time to detach from their work before they go to sleep. It is likely to negatively affect their sleep.”
Mind you, it’s not just China and its workers who experience this sentiment. The 2019 Phillips Global Sleep Survey recruited 11,000 respondents from a dozen different countries. And it found that a whopping 62 percent of adults felt that they did not get a sufficient amount of sleep at night.
Instead, the test subjects averaged just under 7 hours of shut-eye per night, which falls far below the recommended 8-hour stretch that adults need. But what kept nearly 40 percent of these people from getting the rest they craved? Well, the survey revealed that their busy work or school schedules were to blame.
A lack of sleep has many negative effects on health – it’s not just the miserable tiredness that you may feel the next day. Go a few days without proper rest, and the brain fog will start to kick in. You might find it hard to concentrate or make decisions. And this can have dangerous implications if your job requires physical labor or if you feel lethargic, say, while you’re driving home from work.
If you regularly fail to get the recommended amount of sleep, things will get progressively worse. Without ample rest, you spike your chances of developing diabetes, for one. According to the U.K.’s National Health Service (NHS), your body will change the way it processes glucose if you spend five or fewer hours asleep each night. And without proper glucose usage, you are at higher risk of type-two diabetes.
Also, did you know that a lack of sleep can cause heart problems to develop over time? The NHS notes that routinely tired people tend to have higher blood pressure and increased inflammation, as well as a more rapid heart rate. Altogether, these sensations put strain on the cardiovascular system, which can cause heart disease to develop over time.
Routine sleep disruption can stall reproductive hormone production, which can decrease fertility – regardless of your gender. On the other hand, tiredness can cause the hunger-inducing hormone to be more prevalent in your system. So, a regular lack of rest has its ties to obesity as well.
So, how can we ensure that we get ample sleep without sacrificing the personal time we need to decompress after a long day on the job? University of Kent labor sociologist Heejung Chung said the onus was on employers to give their staffers a solid work-life balance.
Chung said that it would be mutually beneficial for employers to give their workers more free time to unwind. But she explained that providing such a schedule would mean that workplaces become “healthy” and “efficient.” As such, Chung explained, “It’s actually a productivity measure.”
Chung went on, “You need that time to unwind. Workers need something to do other than work. It’s risky behavior to do only one thing.” The conditions of 2020 and beyond made that even harder, though, since so much of the global workforce stayed at home. It’s harder to separate professional lives and personal ones when everything’s happening in one place.
The state of the world, plus our constant connectedness, blurred that line. Many people felt they were always at work because, well, they kind of were! Sheffield University lecturer Kelly explained, “This can make it feel more like we are ‘always at work,’ because work can call on us at any time.”
So, how can we cut down our working hours and reduce the need to partake in revenge bedtime procrastination? Chung said that it would require an institutional shift, which would be tough in places like China. After all, workers there and elsewhere will do whatever it takes to get ahead – including working 12 hours a day, six days a week.
Things could change if workers demand it, Chung said. She suggested gathering evidence of the importance of work-life balance and presenting that to employers. It wouldn’t hurt to note that a well-rested you will do better on the job – thus improving the quality and output of work.
Ultimately, though, the decision to stop scrolling is down to the person with the phone in their hand. Some employees find it hard to give up, even after they give up grueling jobs and regain their personal time. Remember Emma Rao, who worked a 996 schedule in Shanghai? She left that role behind for something less demanding but still stayed up late on her phone. Her reason? Well, she said, “It is a revenge to get back some time for yourself.”