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Revenge Bedtime Procrastination

Unpacking our questionable approach to media consumption

Deep into the night, few things are more enthralling to watch than a Tasty video on Facebook demonstrating how to make the perfect Canadian breakfast burrito. Enthralling not for its educational content, or any real interest in the food, but simply because the bright countertop and nondescript stock music keep the brain overstimulated at little to no cost. Softer forms of the same behaviour exist, like listening to a gripping true crime podcast as you try to close your eyes, as do more severe. For many, nighttime is when our brains are most active, seeking out media of all kinds, often just for the sake of staying awake. ‘Revenge bedtime procrastination’ is the name of this phenomenon, and while it may sound niche to some, a better understanding can shed light on why and how we consume culture in the first place.

‘Bedtime procrastination’ was coined in 2014 by a Dutch behavioural scientist, with the ‘revenge’ prefix added around five years later. Journalist Daphne K. Lee popularised the term with a viral tweet highlighting how the phrase ‘bàofù xìngáoyè,’ or ‘retaliatory staying up late’, had been popping up across Chinese social media. Many posts were by younger people, feeling that long, unfriendly working hours impeded their ability to pursue their hobbies or comfort activities. As a result, leisure time would be made up in the wee hours. The word ‘retaliatory’ has a nice, neutral ring to it: as Lee wrote in an article, the initial focus at least is on “regaining control of our life.” Meanwhile ‘revenge’ suggests something more sinister, hinting at the practice’s undertone of self-sabotage: aren’t we really just screwing over ourselves?

Yes, but that’s not the whole story. As ‘revenge bedtime procrastination’ has entered the mainstream, so have different ways of talking about sleep. ‘Sleep hygiene’ is not a new concept in clinical psychology, but it has been the darling of pop-scientists and self-help gurus over the last ten years. Originally developed to treat insomnia, the practice urges that if people instate better behaviours in and around bedtime — regular sleep schedule, limited light exposure, no caffeine or alcohol — they will get the sleep they need. This is sensible advice. We might think, then, that overcoming ‘revenge bedtime procrastination’ is a mere matter of individual discipline: ‘sleep hygiene’ evokes its sister phrase, ‘personal hygiene’. Maybe getting some good shut-eye is essentially the same as remembering to shower.

The problem comes when health influencers and the like frame ‘sleep hygiene’ as a simple, isolated issue. Studies on ‘sleep hygiene’ have rarely been successful outside a clinical setting, likely because they fail to account for real-life factors like uncontrollable noise pollution or psychological stressors that cannot be managed by a mindfulness app. For students with part- or full-time jobs, the expectation that personal pursuits or mindless downtime be sacrificed out of ascetic self-mastery, ‘the grindset’ if you will, is unreasonable. And even for those without jobs, ‘revenge bedtime procrastination’ will be caused by a whole host of factors in and outside one’s control, never just a low attention span.

Questionable approaches to consuming media certainly exist. It is difficult to resist bingeing a great show in one sitting but there are good reasons for not doing so, whether that be saving time or savouring the thing itself. Similarly, I would be lying if I said I hadn’t hate-watched Diana: The Musical when it came out on Netflix. Nevertheless, hate-watching done consistently, for the sake of confirming the opinion you already knew you would have about something, is, at bottom, a bit silly. ‘Revenge bedtime procrastination’ can be thought of as another questionable way to consume media, but we might understand it better as the result of a near-ubiquitous social need. Time outside of work, to enjoy and indulge in culture stupid and smart, is something everyone deserves.

Illustration by Calum Mayor

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