Do College Students Ever Sleep?

By Siobhán Mitchell

It’s no secret that college (and Denison in particular) is known for a work hard, play hard, no sleep attitude. But, sleep is essential to who we are and all that we do. After all, we are at an academic institution to learn, and good quality sleep has a proven association with better academic performance.

We established that sleep is essential but the truth is, no one really knows why. Studies from the 1980s on rats showed that prolonged total sleep deprivation led to death, supporting the claim that if you don’t sleep, you die, but any reason for why we have to hit the hay is only theory. It’s more complicated than A (lack of sleep) leading to B (death), but the claim stands that you do in fact need to sleep even if there is some level of denial about how much.

According to the CDC, a third of the US adult population does not get enough sleep. And the risks are greater than getting an F in participation when you nod off in class. Lack of sleep is linked to multiple chronic health conditions including obesity, heart disease, and type 2 diabetes, but perhaps most prevalent in the college experience is the effect of sleep on mood. In a 2008 study only 16.5% of students scored with no symptoms (or minimal) of depression on the PHQ-9 Depression Test Questionnaire. Although the study was specific to the Emory University student body, it showed that depressive symptoms are not a rarity on college campuses. Multiple studies have linked poor sleep quality, duration, and consistency to an increase in depressive symptoms. Even students who prior to studies did not report sleepiness or depression experienced higher scores on the Profile of Mood States (a self-report psychological questionnaire) when sleep was extended. Obviously, getting the right amount of quality sleep on a consistent basis is not a cure-all for the mental health challenges of students, but there is an undeniable link between the two.

As for our campus, the average bedtime floats around 12 am which means that the average wake up time should be around 7 am at the earliest in order to achieve the recommended (necessary) 7+ hours of sleep a night. Overall, the student body seems to hover right around that 7 hour mark, reporting an average of 7.2 hours of sleep in the night before they took the survey. Additionally, average sleep time was fairly consistent across pseudo spring break (7.3 hours), weekend (7.2), and weekday nights (7.2).

Notably, this amount of sleep is considerably higher than when Oliver Gladfelter last asked about sleep patterns in 2016 when Denison students averaged a whopping 36 minutes less than they do now (6.6 hours/night). It could be a sign of the student body becoming more motivated in their studies or perhaps an unintended benefit of the pandemic like the effect of masks on cold/flu season.

The CDC recommends going to bed around the same time every night, which college students are predictably not as good at. The most common bedtime was delayed by two hours on a weekend night, jumping from 12 am to 2 am. There was also a 15% jump in the number of respondents reporting going to bed past 3 am or later on weekends compared to the mere 3.1 % with later bedtimes on weekdays. This can partly be attributed to the Denison party scene which shuts down officially at 1 am on Friday and Saturday compared to 11 pm on weekdays.

Truly, the college party scene isn’t conducive to good sleep. Aka those drinks that students have before chowing down on a late night Slayter haul goes against CDC recommendations of avoiding alcohol and large meals before bedtime. Still, post-party snacks from the Nest are delicious and remain an important part of Denison party culture. The persistence of binge drinking on the Hill was affirmed through our October 2020 survey with the majority of respondents reporting their closest friend binge drank at least one night per week, emphasizing the role of alcohol at Denison. On a national scale, alcohol was a contributing factor in four sleep patterns: duration, timing, weekday vs. weekend sleep hours, and weekday vs. weekend bedtimes, echoing the importance of Denison’s own alcohol habits on our campus sleep schedule. It’s no surprise that partiers had bigger gaps in their sleep schedule (i.e., going to bed earlier on the weekdays and later on weekends) than inconsistent partiers or non-partiers.

That being said, GPA correlated strongly with the difference in sleep times despite binge drinking behaviors. Consistent bedtimes kept GPA fairly consistent compared to the sharp decrease in GPA as binge drinking nights increased for those with a high gap in bedtimes. It’s possible that those prioritizing academics more highly are willing to go to bed earlier or those who go to bed earlier do better because of more consistent sleep times. Either way, difference in bedtimes throughout the week correlates strongly with academic success.

Needless to say, sleep is important and college culture can facilitate behaviors that are not conducive to healthy sleep habits. Even the newest phenomenon of college life, virtual everything, can be damaging to sleep patterns since using a computer before bedtime makes it more likely to experience drowsy driving, daytime sleepiness, and less restful sleep and the light emitted from electronics can disturb the body’s natural sleep regulation hormone melatonin.

Sleep is important for every aspect of life, but no one has a perfect sleep pattern nor is it appropriate to preach change in the lives of others. We all have the potential to change our patterns if we wish and this serves to inform us more about the health of our community.

Siobhán Mitchell is a senior Spanish major who is trying to figure out what to do with her life. Don’t ask her what she plans on doing next year; she doesn’t even know what she’s gonna eat for dinner today. If you have any ideas, she is open to suggestions on either.

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