A Pandemic Silver Lining? College Students Are Sleeping Better
The COVID-19 pandemic and restrictive stay-at-home orders have taken a toll on many facets of physical and mental health in recent months. But in one area, there may be a silver lining.
According to a new study from researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder, some of us are sleeping better.
“Even though we are living through this incredibly stressful time, which is changing our behaviors drastically, we are seeing changes to sleep behaviors that are, for the most part, positive,” said lead author Dr. Ken Wright, an Integrative Physiology professor and director of the university’s Sleep and Chronobiology Laboratory.
For the study, Wright and his co-authors at the University of Washington set out to assess how student sleep habits were changing in the wake of widespread stay-at-home orders and social distancing guidelines put into place in March 2020.
Wright had already collected sleep data from 139 CU Boulder students for a week from Jan. 29 to Feb. 4 as part of a class project. When all instruction switched to online learning March 16, he said he saw a once-in-a-lifetime research opportunity.
“This is an unprecedented time for research, but when it comes to sleep, not a lot of people have access to data on what people were doing before,” he said. “We did.”
When Wright repeated the week-long survey with the same students from April 22 to 29, researchers found that, on average, the students were devoting 30 more minutes per week day and 24 more minutes per weekend days to sleep. Those students who had been skimping on sleep the most pre-pandemic saw the greatest improvements, with some sleeping as much as two more hours nightly.
The students also kept more regular sleep and wake times and experienced less “social jet lag,” that groggy feeling that occurs when people stay up late and sleep later on the weekends and then resume an earlier schedule on Monday, the researchers reported.
Post pandemic, significantly more students — 92 percent — also got the minimum seven hours a night of sleep recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Typically, about one-third of U.S. college students fail to sleep that much, the researchers noted.
According to Wright, sleep is particularly critical now, as studies have shown that inadequate sleep weakens the immune system, leaving people more vulnerable to viral infections and less responsive to vaccines.
“We know that when you don’t meet the recommendations for sleep it can contribute to a lot of negative health problems,” said Wright.
He noted that insufficient and irregular sleep and social jet lag have all been shown to boost the risk of heart disease, obesity, diabetes, and mood disorders.
“The fact that a lot of these sleep measures are improving is a good sign,” he said.
One finding, however, was not so good, he added.
Compared to February, students are going to bed about 50 minutes later during the week and 25 minutes later during the weekend and waking up later, too.
“Generally, later sleep timing is associated with poor health outcomes,” said Wright, who advises people to try to shift their wake-sleep cycle earlier by getting bright light exposure in the morning and dimming the lights two hours before bedtime.
More research is necessary to determine whether similar shifts are occurring among the general public and, if so, why, he said.
Wright noted that Boulder residents, generally speaking, are better sleepers to begin with. One prior study of the largest 500 cities in the U.S. found that pre-pandemic, Boulder had the lowest percentage of adults who got fewer than seven hours of sleep per night.
Wright suspects the new findings will likely apply more broadly to college students nationwide.
The key now is to identify ways to keep those good sleep habits going once school resumes in person again, he concluded.
The study was published in the journal Current Biology.
Wood, J. (2020). A Pandemic Silver Lining? College Students Are Sleeping Better. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 2, 2020, from https://psychcentral.com/news/2020/06/13/a-pandemic-silver-lining-college-students-are-sleeping-better/157309.html