- A new survey from the American Academy of Sleep Medicine shared that 93% of Gen Z admit to staying up past bedtime to participate in social media. But the majority of adults across generations said the same.
- Experts warn that insufficient sleep affects a person’s physical and mental health and academic/work performance.
- It’s possible to get sleep back on track by following a few simple tips.
School bells are ringing again across the United States, which means alarm clocks are likely going off earlier, too.
But waking up may be hard to do for Gen-Zers, typically defined as people born between the years 1997 and 2012.
A new survey of more than 2,000 people from the American Academy of Sleep Medicine (AASM) reveals that 93% of Gen Z have lost sleep after staying up past bedtime to scroll through or engage in social media.
“Sleep is important for the physical, mental, and emotional development of young people, and inadequate [rest] may affect proper growth and development,” says Azizi Seixas, PhD, the director of the Media and Innovation Laboratory and Center for Translational Sleep and Circadian Sciences at the University of Miami, Miller School of Medicine.
Research has indicated that the brain is not fully developed until the age of 25.
Though young people need sleep to develop, it’s not just “kids these days” who are staying up late to swipe, scroll, and tap. The AASM survey found that 80% of the participants said they stayed up late to use social media.
Though experts suggest any social media use can affect sleep, TikTok, which in 2021 surpassed Facebook and Google as the most popular web domain in the world, can be particularly problematic for sleep. And the habit of scrolling through viral video after viral video can be hard to break.
“TikTok has more or less [become the] slot machine lever [of the] reward system in our brains,” says Howard Pratt, D.O., the behavioral health medical director at Community Health of South Florida, Inc. (CHI).
Here’s what healthcare providers want you to know about the importance of rest, the role of social media, and how to hit refresh on sleep hygiene.
How social media — especially TikTok — affects sleep
The fact that social media can disrupt sleep likely doesn’t come as a surprise.
A 2016 study indicated that it could significantly impact rest, and, as a result, affect the health and well-being of young adults.
More recently, a 2021 study of more than 1,000 TikTok users in China suggested that the popular app might lead to more daytime fatigue. Researchers believe the fatigue can be attributed to increased levels of cognitive arousal before bed.
“The behavior of ‘search and find,’ especially with food, has been shown to keep sleep-deprived mice awake endlessly,” Dimitriu says. “This makes evolutionary sense — finding food may be immediately more important even than sleep.”
And Dimitriu says humans view TikTok in a similar light. Charissa Chamorro, PhD, a New York City-based private clinical psychologist specializing in anxiety disorders and sleep-related issues, agrees.
“With TikTok, you stay hooked because the next video could be the funniest, most talked about, or most fascinating one you’ve ever seen,” Chamorro says. “You stay up late, despite being tired, because your brain is craving its next fix of fascinating entertainment. The videos on TikTok also provide an immediate reward while the benefits of sleep are experienced later.”
The blue light emanating from devices likely doesn’t help. Older research of eReaders from 2014 suggested that blue light adversely affected morning alertness, circadian rhythm, and sleep.
What’s the big deal?
You’ve likely heard sleep is important, but is it so crucial that you need to nix your nightly appointment viewing with TikTok? After all, the videos are fun, and a 2019 study indicated that interacting with people online can actually reduce psychological distress in adults.
But experts share it’s best to prioritize sleep and de-prioritize social media use, particularly close to bedtime.
Negative effects of lack of sleep
The CDC recommends that individuals ages 13 to 18 need eight to 10 hours of sleep every 24 hours, and adults ages 18 to 64 should get at least seven hours of sleep each night,
Carleara Weiss, PhD, MS, RN. Aeroflow Sleep’s sleep science advisor explains that consistently getting less than these recommended amounts could negatively affect physical and mental health and performance. Weiss says common problems stemming from lack of sleep can impair:
- physical performance
- immune function
- hormone regulation
Because Gen Z’s age range is 10 to 25 years old, meaning only the eldest members of the generation may have fully developed brains, Weiss notes that lack of sleep can be particularly harmful to their physical, cognitive, social, and emotional health.
A 2019 cross-sectional survey of medical students in Saudi Arabia who were at least 18 years old suggested that poor sleep quality was associated with greater psychological distress. A 2021 meta-analysis also linked poor sleep to negative mental health outcomes.
A 2014 policy statement from the American Academy of Pediatrics — the most recent on adolescent sleep — indicated that insufficient sleep could raise the risk of depression, obesity, and drowsy driving accidents in adolescents and young adults.
More recent research from 2017 support these findings.
Additionally, Weiss says it can up the risk for:
- cardiovascular disease
- type 2 diabetes
Negative effects of overuse of social media
Social media isn’t all bad. It can help us feel connected. But Seixas says too much of it can come with unwanted side effects. In addition to sleep deprivation, these risks include:
- poor mental and emotional health (mood and depression)
- fear of missing out (FOMO)
- unhealthy body image
A 2016 study of adults ages 19 to 32 suggested that social media use could lead to increased depression. A 2021 meta-analysis indicated an association between depression symptoms, time spent on social media sites, and intensity of use across age and gender.
A 2021 Facebook whistleblower report revealed that the company, which owns Instagram and has since changed its name to Meta, had internal research noting that 13.5% of teen girls said Instagram worsened thoughts of suicide. Seventeen% of teen girls reported that the platform exacerbated their eating disorders.
Tips for unplugging from social media and getting more sleep
Reading about the results of the AASM survey and the effects of lack of sleep and too much social media may feel like one giant doom scroll. But experts share it’s possible to reduce social media use and improve sleep.
Set limits and keep them
Dimitriu reminds people that they’ll never view the entire Internet or TikTok library of content in their lifetime — let alone one night. He suggests setting a social media bedtime before you actually plan to try to fall asleep.
“Make an active decision to stop after some time and pursue other interests,” Dimitriu says.
Seixas suggests retiring from social media one to two hours before bedtime and limiting that scroll session to 30 minutes.
Every person responds differently to social media, so it’s important to assess your individual needs for boundaries.
“Watch your moods before and after [you view social media],” Dimitriu says. “Note what you feel like before getting on social media. Are you escaping some feeling? Some thought?”
Then, Dimitriu suggests making similar notes about your feelings after you log off. He suggests asking yourself, “Did the experience make you more or less happy? Anxious? Easier to fall asleep after that?”
Use these decisions to inform how long you can spend on a platform and when to cut off use before bed.
Do the same for sleep needs. Though the CDC has its age-group recommendations, some people may need more sleep to feel their best. They may be spot-on for others.
“Everyone complains when they are tired, and few people appreciate how good they feel when they get enough sleep,” Dimitriu says. “Make it a point to check in and see how you feel after a solid seven to eight hours. That feeling should be the impetus for putting down social media and getting more sleep.”
Create a bedtime routine
As a child, you may have had a special routine with a caregiver. Perhaps they read you a favorite story or sang a lullaby. Older children and adults can also benefit from a routine, Weiss says.
“Allow time to ‘close all tabs’ in the brain, relax, and unwind,” she says.
If you’re looking for something else to do, Dimitriu suggests turning back the clock, figuratively speaking, by consuming other media.
“Reading [something offline, like a physical book] is often best for sleep because it is less exciting,” he says.
Books also don’t emit blue light.
Weiss says meditation is also often an efficient way to relax and get more sleep. A 2018 review indicated there might be some evidence mindfulness meditation could improve sleep and called for more research.
Once you determine how much sleep you need per night, it’s time to do some (simple) math.
“Figure out what time you have to get up for school or work and set your bedtime from there,” says Seixas. “Once your schedule is set, aim to go to bed and wake up within one hour of your schedule. This will get your body used to waking up — and falling asleep — at the same time each day. This means you will naturally get drowsy when it’s time to go to bed, which will make it easier to fall asleep.”
“You may want to keep a sleep schedule,” Pratt says. “Typically, people have trouble…going to bed…so making a commitment to saying, ‘My day will wind down at this time and sticking with it, is important.”
Ideally, you keep this schedule on weekends, too.
Don’t check your phone first-thing
If you nix screen time two hours before bedtime and sleep for eight hours, that’s 10 full hours without social media. That’s 600 minutes — but who is counting?
It’s tempting to want to roll over and see what you’ve missed on TikTok first thing in the morning. Weiss suggests resisting the temptation.
“The fear of missing out increases anxiety and co-dependency on social media,” she says.
Instead, get up, brush your teeth, and work out or try some mindfulness exercises before logging onto social or even picking up your phone.