The Worst Social Media App For Sleep Is TikTok

Photographed by Michael Beckert.
Over the holidays last year, I downloaded TikTok. A little late to the game, maybe. But I was hooked from the start.
I spent a solid day — truly, probably eight straight hours — scrolling through the short clips. A whole new world of memes opened up to me. What was at first confusing (why are these men wearing shirts and towels on their heads?) quickly became delightful in-jokes, that I was now in on. I was elated, as only someone who’s found another way to slowly kill off her retinal cones can be.
It didn’t take long after I’d downloaded the app, though, for me to have my first twinge of unease about my new social media obsession. It was that very same night actually, and it was because I stayed up past 2 a.m. watching TikTok videos.
That’s very unlike me. I’m a great sleeper. Usually I browse reddit before bed, but even with all that blue light beaming into my eyes, and even when I’m knee-deep in the most infuriatingly hilarious AITA thread ever (pro tip: sort by controversial), my eyelids start to droop around midnight, my phone falling out of my hand somewhere east of my head.
But when I started scrolling TikTok, that natural shutdown did not occur. Half a year later, it has still not occurred. I’m not a daily user, but when I do open the app at night, it keeps me up. Eyes plastered open, index finger rubbed raw from swiping. Even once I force myself to put the phone down, it takes me 20 minutes or so to calm down enough to drift off to sleep.
Why does this happen to me? I wondered. (Cough *lack of self-control* cough.) Seven months into my use, I couldn’t blame TikTok’s novelty for ruining my sleep. Was it something about the combination of video and audio that was overriding my brain’s natural knock-out mechanisms? Had years and years of blue light from pre-bed scrolling finally given me the insomnia I probably deserve? What is going on? I’m so tired.
“There is a recommended list of activities to use before bed,” explains Lynelle Schneeberg, PsyD, a psychologist at Yale Medicine specialising in behavioural sleep medicine. Here’s her list of favourite pre-sleep pursuits, from best to worst: reading a book, reading on a Kindle or tablet, listening to an audiobook or podcast, watching a movie. “After that,” she tells me, “I don’t have many more favourite things.” Many of the other things people do at night can make it harder to drift off, she says.
When I ask Schneeberg what went into her rating system, she says each option’s blue light output plays a part. (She asks clients to use the night mode on their devices, if they must use them before bed.) But just as impactful was the type of pastime. Specifically, she considers, “Are you using each device in an interactive way, or in a passive way?” Reading or watching a video is going to be less likely to keep you awake than publishing pictures, liking posts, or reading and responding to emails, she notes. “Interactivity keeps you more stimulated and less shut down.” It helps to imagine that your phone has become a book or movie player at bedtime, she suggests.
Even within the activities she says are acceptable to do before bed, there’s a spectrum. Schneeberg says you can imagine rating activities on a scale of one to 10, with one being super boring and 10 being super engaging. “You don’t want to be watching or reading a 10. That might be a thriller, for example, or a book your favourite author just published, or a brand-new, binge-able show,” she says. “Try to choose something that’s a five: not so boring that you don’t care, but just interesting enough that drowsiness can sneak up on you and you aren’t lying there worrying about whether you’ll be able to fall asleep. You want distraction — but only at a certain level.”
It’s hard not to see how all this relates to my TikTok-induced insomnia. The platform’s videos are a minute long, max; many are 15 seconds or less. Each one replays until you swipe up to view the next. I often find myself clicking on particularly funny users’ profiles to see what else they’ve posted, or heading down a hashtag wormhole (hello, #WitchesForBLM). So it’s incredibly interactive. Plus, it’s maximally engaging — if a video bores you, you can swipe past it in a second until you find something that catches your attention.
My standby, reddit, on the other hand, is interactive, but on the one-to-10 spectrum of engagingness, it’s closer to “book” then “TikTok.” It takes a while to scroll around and find a post you want to click, then you have to read the whole post, then head to the comments — where the most compelling content usually is.
Another factor I have to consider, Schneeberg says, is how tired I am. “If you’re really exhausted, it doesn’t matter so much what you watch,” she tells me. But if you tend to have trouble falling asleep anyway, or you’re feeling especially stressed, remember: Go for activities that require little-to-no interaction, and are moderately, but not extremely, interesting to you. For me, that means no TikTok before bed. Except on the weekends.

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