The Surprising Reason You Can't Stop Checking Facebook

A new study finds that sleep deprivation is correlated with heavy social media use.

02/09/2016 02:08 pm ET
TARIK KIZILKAYA via Getty Images
Restful sleep and heavy social media use don't make good bedfellows, according to new research.

Do you struggle to resist the siren song of that little red Facebook notification? If so, it could mean that you're sleep-deprived.

A new study from researchers at the University of California, Irvine finds that poor sleep can lead to compulsive Facebook checking, as well as to decreases in mood and productivity. The correlation seems to run the other way, too: Just days earlier, another study found that heavy social media use leads to sleep disturbances.

Indeed, it seems that sleep troubles and excessive social media surfing create a vicious cycle. 

There's a fairly simple explanation for why a "sleep debt" might lead you into Facebook overdrive. Proper sleep is essential to our ability to pay attention. When we don't get enough sleep, we're more prone to distraction -- and what's a better distraction than Facebook? 

“If you’re being distracted, what do you do? You go to Facebook. It’s lightweight, it’s easy, and you’re tired," Dr. Gloria Mark, an informatics professor at the university and the study's lead author, said in a statement

For the study, Mark recruited 76 undergraduates to participate in the study for a week during their spring semester. During the seven-day study period, their phones and computers were equipped with tracking software, which used time stamps to record when the students switched from one application to another, and when they spoke on the phone or texted. 

The students were also asked to fill out surveys about their sleep habits. Periodically throughout the week, they filled out a short questionnaire about their current mood, level of engagement in their work, and how difficult they felt their task at hand was.

Controlling for the students’ gender, age, course load and deadlines, the researchers found a clear correlation between heavy Facebook use and a lack of sleep, poor mood and disengagement. They observed that the less sleep the students got, the more they engaged in "attention shifting" -- multitasking and rapidly moving between different computer tabs and apps. 

"We thought that when students are more sleep-deprived and when they’re using technology, they might seek out activities involving fewer cognitive resources," Mark told The Huffington Post. "If a person is tired, they have fewer attentional resources available. So it makes sense to do something easy and lightweight, and to follow habits."

So if your Facebook habit is getting a little out of control -- or you're spending way too much time cyberloafing at work -- try hitting the hay a little earlier and keeping devices out of the bedroom.  And on the other hand, if you're having trouble sleeping, try cutting back on your social networking. 

The findings, which have not yet been published, will be presented at a computer-human interaction conference in San Jose, California, in May.  

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