Staying up late at night? You may be engaging in revenge bedtime procrastination.
It’s 12:30 a.m. and you are lying in bed, wide awake, gripping your phone as you scroll through your favorite social media sites and YouTube videos. Maybe you are exploring every newly released binge-worthy TV show on Netflix. Perhaps you are shopping or catching up on the latest diet craze. For hours, you mindlessly whizz through everything from crock pot recipes to Hollywood break-ups. None of it is particularly interesting, but you don’t want to stop. Between work, parenting, food shopping, meal prep, laundry, and successfully navigating every catastrophe thrown your way today, you should feel like going to sleep.
What is going on here?
A phenomenon called revenge bedtime procrastination has been getting a lot of attention recently. The term ‘bedtime procrastination’ was first used in a 2014 research article published in Frontiers in Psychology (Frontiers | Bedtime procrastination: introducing a new area of procrastination | Psychology). The word ‘revenge’ was added in China as people began to define this behavior as a way of delaying sleep in order to take back control of lost time during daytime hours. (ref 2) Essentially, revenge bedtime procrastination occurs when people feel they have missed out on personal time during the day, so they take “revenge” by staying up very late at night to get some of it back.
Revenge bedtime procrastination can affect anyone. People with intense daytime stress at work and parents who have little time to themselves are particularly vulnerable. High school and college students are also at risk due to overscheduling and extracurricular activities. Women are statistically more likely to experience it.
The pandemic appears to have exacerbated revenge bedtime procrastination, as studies show that nearly 40% of adults reported an increase in sleep issues in 2020. (ref 2) The stress associated with stay-at-home orders may have also contributed to the rise of the phenomenon. Studies show that working from home prolonged working hours for many, which offset normal schedules. In an article titled What Is Revenge Bedtime Procrastination? Kendra Cherry wrote, “As the line between work, home, and school became increasingly blurred, many people found that having time alone was hard to come by. Bedtime procrastination became a way for many to squeeze in some precious alone time during the late-night hours.”
Katia Castelli, M.S.Ed, school psychologist at North Salem High School, acknowledged the challenge that students, in particular, are having with revenge bedtime procrastination. “Many kids are saying it's hard for them to unplug and just relax,” she said. She sees students who stay up late struggling with concentration and attention, and some who have depressive episodes or anxiety triggered by poor sleep.
Castelli cites the pandemic as one contributing factor. “During remote learning, kids enjoyed not having to wake up early to get ready for school, which gave them extra time in the morning. Students report staying up because they are playing video games, streaming videos, and binge watching television shows. They seem to be sacrificing sleep for preferred activities.” She added that students became isolated during the pandemic, making it even harder for them to disconnect with devices, because that was their only source of social interaction. “During Covid peaks, kids used online socialization as a safe alternative to in-person contact, which led to even more screen time,” she said. “Some kids were socially deprived and their brains essentially became rewired. Luckily, a lot of that can be undone with remodeling, putting structure in place, and being in-person with teachers and friends.”
Three behaviors are required for revenge bedtime procrastination to be considered a problem:
- A delay in going to bed that significantly reduces a person’s overall time sleeping
- Having no credible reason to stay up late
- Being aware of the negative consequences associated with having a late bedtime
The absence of free time during the day is just one factor. People who have difficulty with self-regulation also struggle with revenge bedtime procrastination. Additionally, people who tend to procrastinate in other areas of their lives, such as with household chores or homework, may be more susceptible to this issue. (ref 3) People with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) are also more likely to engage in this behavior due to the fact they often have comorbid sleep issues and experience ‘time blindness,’ which makes it much more difficult to realize when it is time to wind down for the evening. (ref 4)
Staying up too late can rob people of crucial rest they require for optimal health. If not controlled, revenge bedtime procrastination, and subsequent habitual loss of sleep, can lead to impaired executive functioning, emotional dysregulation, mood disorders, poor nutrition, and a weakened immune system. (ref 4). Decision-making and memory can also be affected, resulting in poor productivity at work or academic performance. Inadequate sleep can also cause drowsy driving accidents, particularly amongst teenagers. In general, the negative consequences of persistent sleep loss can build up over time, contributing to significant problems in both mental and physical wellness. (ref 3)
Sameena Groves, Ph.D is a Westchester psychologist at City and Country CBT who is well-versed in working with teens and adults. She said revenge bedtime procrastination is a term that began to resonate with many during the pandemic. “People lost the boundaries between the different parts of their day that helped them compartmentalize work, free time, and family time,” she said. “Without those clearly defined lines, people began to feel their day was stolen from them. They got ‘revenge’ by staying up late and engaging in this behavior, in spite of the negative consequences.”
Groves acknowledged that teens were often up late connecting with peers on Snapchat, Instagram, and other social media outlets, especially during lockdown. “The exposure to blue light at night is disruptive to the circadian rhythm,” she said. “Natural light in the morning begins to wire you for regularity. Toward the end of the day, we need to begin dimming the light in our environment. With revenge bedtime procrastination, you are prolonging the message to the brain to stay awake, which affects the basic chemicals that govern our sleep cycles.”
She continued, “When you delay sleep onset, that has negative consequences for your attention, mental health, and general efficiency.” With respect to teens, especially, Groves said, “We are asking them to perform at optimal levels at all times, even when they are deprived of rest. It is important to remember that a person can look alert even with parts of the brain being asleep.”
When asked about the differences between people who experience revenge bedtime procrastination and those who proclaim to be ‘night owls’, Groves said, “Night owls have a ‘chronotype,’ which is a biological category. Some people are wired to be very focused and alert in the morning. Some find their groove in the middle of the day. And others come alive in the evening.” She added that the way night owls spend their time is typically productive and task-oriented. Whereas those who engage in revenge bedtime procrastination knowingly choose to put off sleep in order to take part in satisfying, but relatively unproductive activities. She said, “The short-term consequences of revenge bedtime procrastination are enjoyable, but the long-term consequences are challenging.”
What are the strategies for combating revenge bedtime procrastination? Castelli does psychoeducation with her North Salem High School students to teach them about the impact of poor sleep on mental health and cognitive functioning. “We talk about strategies like mindfulness, listening to relaxing music, and taking a hot shower before bed. I educate them about how blue light can impact good sleep hygiene. If they are truly struggling, I will engage parents to be part of the process. If the problem continues, I will recommend a consultation with the child's pediatrician.”
Dr. Groves recommends people take a look at how they spend their day to assert some boundaries and schedule in activities that bring them joy. “It is about having choices,” she said. “Choosing to take breaks, scheduling fun, listening to music, or carving out five minutes for a quick meditation are all ways to nurture yourself. If you derive pleasure from screen time activities and it fuels you in a good way, schedule it into the day and be intentional about it. Revenge bedtime procrastination is not restorative; it is taking a stand against being controlled and attempting to reassert one’s autonomy.”
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