Sleep Deprivation Epidemic in College Students Reveals Detrimental Effects

The following is an article I wrote for my enterprise story, the final project of my winter quarter journalism class.


When it comes to sleep, senior Brian Hallis is constantly playing catch-up.

On a typical day, he wakes up at 9 a.m. for classes, after sleeping at 4 a.m., taking naps during the day to add to the few hours of sleep he got the night before. In between classes, he tries to find the time to catch up on homework readings, before heading to a cappella rehearsal in the early evening. Even in his dorm at night, he’s often on duty as an RA.

“It affects my performance in class in terms of how well I take my notes,” he said. “I sometimes feel very lethargic, and it’s hard to keep up in conversations with my friends.”

Though these sleeping habits started in his freshman year of college, he now has a cappella practices and RA meetings that force him to push back his homework, which builds up at the end of the day.

“I look and feel like I’m 30,” Hallis said.

Hallis is just one of many college students across the country suffering from sleep deprivation, a phenomenon affecting people in all sorts of ways.

median sleep
Median amount of sleep college students get has decreased over the years, reports a study from the Journal of Adolescent Health

According to a study published in the June 2010 Journal of Adolescent Health, college students slept an average of seven hours a night in 2009, down from seven hours and 45 minutes in 1969.

The authors noted the drop stems from a variety of factors, including harder studies and reduced parental control, and that prolonged sleep deprivation increases the chances of substance use and motor vehicle accidents.

Hallis, who planned to stay up all night on Sunday, was working on a 10-page paper for his Global Health class. He reported feeling tired at half past two.

“I do have an interview tomorrow,” he said, “so I’m hoping that I’ll be able to get some sleep before that, and then try to pull a little nap in between.”

Still, he pushed on through the night, singing along softly to Sam Smith and Adele to maintain his productivity, stopping once to take a Super Smash Bros video-game break. When he slept at 3:30, he had finished half of his paper.

Hallis is often forced to make decisions at the margin, but says he still believes in the importance of sleep.

“Even a couple minutes of sleep or 30 minutes of shut-eye really do help a little bit to help your body recuperate over the course of those 24 hours,” he said.

Dr. Kelly Baron, who researches sleep and circadian rhythms at Northwestern’s Feinberg School of Medicine, said that getting enough sleep for young adults is particularly important, considering their naturally later circadian rhythm.

“Most college students are socializing in the evening and early morning hours,” she said. However students may be spending their time late at night, she says that the tendency to stay up late conflicts with their need to be in morning classes and their biological need to sleep adequately.

Freshman Patrick Melendez’s dyslexia has affected his studying habits since elementary school, forcing him to spend more time on his homework readings.

On most days, he wakes up for class at 7 a.m., heads to a daily club track practice in the afternoon, returns to his dorm by early evening, and spends the rest of the night doing homework and answering emails for his job at the House of Deputies for the Episcopal Church until about 1 a.m.

He said the lack of sleep impairs his athletic abilities, giving him headaches and affecting his studies.

“We’re supposed to be learning very intense material and doing very intense work,” he said. “With a lack of sleep, that makes the quality of that work a lot worse.”

Michael Grandner, who works with the Behavioral Sleep Medicine Program at the University of Pennsylvania and studies the relationship between one’s sleeping habits and social and physical health, says that sleep is crucial for college students but often isn’t recognized as worth the time trade-off.

“We’re asking them to essentially give up an important part of their autonomy and their day,” he said.

If students neglect sleep, Grandner said, they risk depriving the body of what it desperately needs.

cancer benefits
The Cancer Treatment Centers of Americahighlights the benefits of sleeping

“Over time, it develops into all of these unhealthy conditions,” Grandner said, citing possibilities like depression, obesity, heart disease and diabetes that could result from prolonged sleep deprivation.

Freshman Madison Rossi calls herself an extremist, having grown accustomed to three to four hours of sleep a night, a habit that started as early as high school.

Now a university student, Rossi said she gets a bit more sleep. But she still neglects it because she believes the physical difference between four and five hours of sleep is negligible compared with the gain of staying up another hour.

“I try not to let sleep control my life,” she said.

Rossi says her lack of sleep affects her most when she has to write an essay or attend an English class, where she has to direct lots of brainpower and thought to her studies.

“If you can’t think clearly, you won’t create a good essay,” she said. “When I’m studying for a math test, I’d rather cram all of the technical information into my brain and make sure I know how to do everything and stay up that extra hour.”

Rossi recalls feeling pressured to study, join more clubs, or apply for internships, saying she constantly feels compelled to optimize available resources.

“It’s a daily mind-over-matter battle,” she said.


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