Tuesday, 6 March 2012

Sleep less and waste more time online: the temptations of cyberloafing

Cyberloafing is when work time is frittered away on an unrelated online activity, whether it be web comics, perusing news sites or watching the 1982 snooker championship final. A new article suggests that we may be more prone to it when we haven't had enough sleep. Its authors, led by David Wagner, began sifting through Google's publically available data for rates of Entertainment-related searches, judged to be a reasonable proxy of cyberloafing. But how can anonymous data shed light on an issue involving sleeping habits?

The investigators recognised an event that affects everyone's sleep: when the clocks go forward for Daylight Saving Time. Prior evidence suggests we lose on average 40 minutes of sleep per night following the switch, as our body rhythms struggle to adjust. (Exploiting a fixed phenomena is an example of a quasi-experiment; another would be the hurricane that occurred within this study on emotional hangovers.) The researchers used data from 203 metropolitan areas in the USA, weighted by area size, across 2004-2009. They found that Entertainment-related searches on the Monday after DST were 3.1% more prevalent than the previous Monday, and 6.4% than the subsequent Monday . It's worth noting that the data isn't segmented by work and leisure hours, so the effect includes extra surfing that might occur later at night, when people are still feeling awake; however, the bulk of online activity occurs during working hours.

A second study took this to controlled lab conditions. 96 undergraduate students wore a sleep monitoring bracelet overnight before attending a lab session to complete a computer task - assessing a potential new professor for the university by watching a 42 minute video lecture. What the researchers were really interested in was the amount of time they would spend surfing the internet instead. Cyberloafing was higher for participants who experienced more instances of sleep interruption or less sleep overall, as recorded by their monitoring bracelet.

This is another piece of research advancing the ego depletion theory of why we fail to effectively regulate behaviour. This states that willpower is a resource that is used up through effortful acts, leaving us susceptible to temptation or laziness. Researchers have previously argued that sleep is a means of recharging our regulatory resources, and these studies confirm that less sleep does indeed make us prey to counterproductive activities like cyberloafing. However, those who naturally exercise self-discipline may be somewhat resistant: in study two, the effect of sleep interruption on cyberloafing was weaker for participants who scored high on a measure of conscientiousness administered beforehand. (The effect of less overall sleep still remained.) This is consistent with ego depletion, as highly conscientious types are more likely to actively use methods to regulate their effort to overcome counterproductive behaviours, rather than taking the path of least resistance.

The costs of cyberloafing have been estimated at around £300m a year, so it's worth understanding when we're more vulnerable to its temptations;  UK employers should remember this when our clocks go forward on the 25th of this month. Aware of its power, I've included only one extraneous, non-work related link in the above text, and it's a niche one at that. But if you're a classic snooker fan with a tricky deadline, I'm so sorry. Just think about all the time I wasted considering the alternatives.

ResearchBlogging.org Wagner, D., Barnes, C., Lim, V., & Ferris, D. (2012). Lost Sleep and Cyberloafing: Evidence From the Laboratory and a Daylight Saving Time Quasi-Experiment. Journal of Applied Psychology DOI: 10.1037/a0027557


  1. Just wondering (student question) is ego depletion the same as decision fatigue?

  2. Hi Rebecca

    It's a good question. My understanding is that the two have some overlap but are conceptually distinct: ego depletion can include instances of making active decisions but also extended periods of abstinence (eg withholding from eating favoured foods) which could simply be effortfully putting that food out of mind continually, rather than making a series of explicit "no I won't!" decisions.

    I haven't seen a taxonomy that places the two in relation with each other; I could guess that decision fatigue might be a subset of ego depletion, but there may be subtleties there that I'm missing.

    Hope that helps some!


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