The freedom to plan their own daily schedule is part of the college dream many students may have. However, when the hours of classes, homework, study time, part-time jobs and other activities add up, students often sleep less than recommended.
Assistant Director of Wellness Services - Clinic Services Judy Frueh said students should be getting seven to nine hours of sleep each night. However, she generally sees students getting an average of five or six hours each night.
“(Sleep) is just like charging your phone,” Frueh said. “You need to recharge. When you don’t, then that puts you up to decrease your immune system. It also sets you up to eat a lot more, so you’re more likely to gain weight.”
Graduate student Natasha Helme tends to sleep a maximum of four hours a night. While she was an undergraduate student, she started cutting out sleep to have time for her coursework as a double-major in professional writing and history and working as a tutor in both fields.
“It just got progressively worse as time went on because the classes got harder and I had to read more,” Helme said. “Since I was a history major, I would read some things that were really messed up and that would keep me up at night too.”
Students who don’t sleep enough don’t perform as well as students who do. Lawrence Epstein, an instructor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, said students feel and perform as poorly as someone who hasn’t slept for 48 hours after sleeping less than six hours per night for two weeks, according to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine.
As both a graduate assistant and a research assistant in the writing center, Helme spends most of her night reading and writing after her evening classes. She has grown accustomed to going to sleep at 3 or 4 a.m.
“When I first started doing it, other than constantly being so tired, I just had a harder time concentrating sometimes,” Helme said. “I’m used to it now. It doesn’t affect me as much.”
Even though Helme often functions without adequate sleep, it hinders her ability to focus in class and prevents her from completing assignments to the best of her ability.
Sleep deprivation negatively affects both physical and mental health. Associate professor in the School of Health, Science and Wellness Jackie Kibler said sleep is important for college students because their brains are still developing until their mid-twenties.
“When you’re sleeping, it’s the only time your brain has a chance to make connections and finish developing,” Kibler said. “The last part of your brain to develop is your frontal lobe which is in charge of making good decisions, planning and organizing information.”
Kibler said she knows when her students don’t get enough sleep because they seem more stressed, they don’t think as clearly and they have difficulty with memory. Students tell her they stayed up late studying or doing homework because they think they’ll perform better in the morning, but she said it’s the other way around.
“You need to sleep so your performance will increase,” Kibler said. “You’re not doing yourself any favors by missing out on sleep.”
To make up for missed sleep during the week, students tend to sleep in on the weekends. Frueh said this is an ineffective method.
“You can’t bank it,” Frueh said. “It’s best to get it consistently and stick close to a sleep pattern by a couple hours on the weekends just because that keeps you in rhythm for your sleep cycle. Sleeping 12-15 hours on the weekends will just keep you tired.”
College students don’t get enough sleep because they think sleep deprivation is expected since the people around them don’t get adequate sleep either, Kibler said.
Helme said she sees many people who are proud of their sleep deprivation, but she doesn’t think they should be.
“It irritates me sometimes that our society is like, ‘Yes, put yourself in these bad situations to be above others/elite,’” Helme said. “That should not be a badge of honor. The badge of honor should be taking care of yourself.”
Effective time management skills can help students get more sleep. Frueh said everyone, not just college students, can benefit from being aware of the amount of time they spend on social media and watching TV — things she calls “time-wasters.”
Kibler had similar thoughts. For a class project, some of her students monitored how much time they were on their phones, and the results were eye-opening.
“I think if people monitored and saw how many hours they’re actually on their phones, they’d realize they could actually use some of that time to sleep,” Kibler said.
On average people spend three hours and 15 minutes on their phones each day, according to The Guardian. Some people spend nearly four and a half hours on them.
Frueh said she thinks freshmen have the hardest time getting enough sleep because they’re also adjusting to the college lifestyle. Being involved in various activities while balancing coursework and finding sleep can be overwhelming for some.
Freshman Olivia Zylstra said she manages time well because she does any work she can during the hour breaks between classes. Zylstra’s schoolwork hasn’t hindered her sleep schedule so far. She goes to bed around 11 p.m. and wakes up at 6:30 a.m. to get ready for her 8 a.m. classes every day.
“I don’t know if, when I get more homework, it’ll stay that early, but I’m hoping it will,” Zylstra said. “I’m also planning on joining more things as time goes on. I always try to do my work at least for the day then I do other stuff like watch Netflix because I know it’s not going to happen if I don’t (beforehand).”
While Zylstra isn’t having trouble now, many students — such as Helme — struggle balancing their workload and sleep as the semester progresses. When sleep deprivation begins to affect their mental health, Kibler said they should talk to their professors.
“As a professor, I always prioritize my students’ mental health,” Kibler said. “If a student is struggling and they talk to me, I’ll do whatever I can to assist them and get them whatever resources I can. I’ll always work with them because I want them to be successful.”
Students can do different things to get better sleep. Frueh said they should have a routine, determine their priorities and stay off their phones at least 30 minutes before going to sleep. Kibler recommended limiting caffeine consumption in the afternoon, getting exposure to sunlight in the mornings, meditating and limiting stressful activities before bed.
“The littlest habits make a huge difference,” Kibler said. “You guys need to prioritize yourselves. Be honest with yourself. If you’re not healthy, all the other stuff doesn’t matter.”