For most of us, finding time to sleep isn’t a simple task. But for post-secondary students, it can seem like a near impossibility.
With the constant piling up of assignments and last-minute study plans for major tests or exams; students often find themselves sacrificing sleep in order to achieve success in school. While this plan may seem harmless, there are many consequences of sleep deprivation including an impact on the overall academic success of a student. The pressures to hand in assignments on time, or study for tests have led to procrastination and avoidance of work in an attempt to side-step school related stress.
“Post-secondary students find themselves procrastinating with assignments because they know they can pull an all-nighter or two, and finish all their work,” said Dr. Kimberly Cote, a professor of Psychology at Brock University. Cote has spent the last twenty years studying sleep deprivation, daytime sleepiness, sleep onset processes, and information processing during sleep. She has taught many students at Brock University, and has first-hand experience of sleep deprivation on post-secondary students. “A lack of sleep causes a lack of cognitive ability,” said Dr. Cote. “When your brain does not function to its full capacity, important information in lectures may slip past.”
Students affected by sleep deprivation, or having made the choice to sacrifice sleep for school-related purposes; can see significant reductions in performance and alertness. Clinical psychologist, Dr. Michael J. Breus discovered that reducing nighttime sleep by as little as one and a half hours for just one night can result in a reduction of daytime alertness by 32 percent. The minimum time of sleep for young adults currently recommended by the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention is 7-8 hours a night; indicating that a post-secondary student with less than 7 hours of sleep will experience negative effects in the morning, including: memory and cognitive impairment.
The negative effects of sleep deprivation include short-term and long-term changes on physical and mental health. Photo courtesy: Wikimedia.org (Wikicommons)
Some post-secondary students pull all-nighters in order to avoid mark deductions or penalties towards their academic progress records. Jordan Da Costa, a third-year Criminal Justice student at Humber College, chooses to have minimal sleep if it means submitting an assignment on time. “I like my sleep, but if I have an assignment to do; I will stay up as late as I have to so I don’t get deducted marks.” While Da Costa chooses to avoid taking the academic penalty at the sacrifice of sleep; other students find it more difficult.
Christopher Cundari, a second-year Business student at York University does not leave his work until the last-minute, but sleep deprivation still affects him. “Sometimes I lay in bed for hours just worrying about school work, and the only way this feeling goes away is when I do my work ahead of schedule,” said Cundari. “Sometimes, just thinking about school and all the work that needs to be done over the course of a semester can cause a restless sleep.” For Cundari, sleep deprivation is not a choice, but something he experiences when thinking about school.
Sleep deprivation can be either chronic or acute. Chronic deprivation, significantly affects an individual’s health, performance and safety, meanwhile acute deprivation targets an individual’s verbal and symbol concentration, learning, problem solving, clear thinking, manual skills, and memory. According to clinical psychologist Dr. Breus, sleep deprivation for certain post-secondary students can be due to unrecognized sleep disorders. After a typical night’s sleep, an individual may not feel restored or refreshed; completely unaware they are being sleep deprived or have a sleep disorder.
First-year Paramedic student at Humber College, Kayla Trottier has been a long-time sufferer of chronic sleep deprivation. “I used to wake up feeling exhausted, and weak; I always thought it was normal to feel this way,” said Trottier. “In my final year of high school, I decided to tell my doctor about it… he told me I was suffering from chronic sleep deprivation.” Trottier remains a sufferer of chronic sleep deprivation, but has found ways to distract herself from school-related stress as much as possible. “I try and go for walks in the evening before bed, sometimes they help tremendously,” said Trottier.
Another reason for sleep deprivation in post-secondary students may be the extensive use of technology or electronic devices. In 2011, The National Sleep Foundation conducted a poll that discovered high usage of communications technology before bed. According to the poll, one in five generation Y-ers (18-29) year-olds are considered “sleepy” and are awakened every other night by a phone call, text, or email. Dr. Brian Boehner, a sleep medicine specialist, also points out that a major reason for sleep deprivation is frequent use of electronic devices. The bright light from tablets, phones, or laptops don’t allow for melatonin to effectively inform the rest of the body that it’s time for bed. Melatonin is a hormone responsible for our daily onset of darkness. Its primary function is to regulate our day-night cycles. Bright lights prior to bed effect melatonin levels within our brain; preventing the human body from having a full night’s sleep.
Further research is required to determine how to best educate students about the importance of sleep and consequences of sleep deprivation. Electronic or web-based interventions may be a reasonable approach towards educating an electronic savvy demographic. It is important for universities and colleges to understand, acknowledge and publicize that certain policies and class schedules may have substantial impacts on the sleep, learning and health of post-secondary students.