Changing College And University Sleep Culture

Here at Good Night Sleep Site, we’re big on sleep education. Not surprising, right? What is surprising though is how many people still don’t understand much about sleep – why it’s important, how it supports overall health, and that it can prevent illnesses from starting or getting worse. One group of people in particular that seems to throw sleep right out the window comes in the form of college and university students. All nighters, fueled by caffeine after three or four hours of sleep, erratic sleep habits – you name it, they do it. And we’ve all been there. But what if sleep education was the key to helping this cohort not only perform better in school but feel better too?

For the first time ever, incoming 2018 Harvard first-year students were asked to complete “Sleep 101″ by the end of their first day on campus. A component of the Sleep Matters Initiative, which is led by a Harvard affiliated hospital, “Sleep 101” is an interactive online module designed to increase student awareness when it comes to both health and performance implications of sleep. In addition, the tool also provided tips and strategies for sleeping well at school such as how to build a healthy sleep schedule, the effects of sleep disorders, how caffeine impacts sleep, and how lifestyle choices such as nutrition, exercise and screen time play a role in sleeping well.

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Before we dive into the results of a study completed on the “Sleep 101” module, let’s take some time to examine why this focus on sleep culture is so important.

Why Teen Sleep Matters More Than You Might Think

Overall, most people know that adolescents need a lot of sleep, ideally eight to ten hours a night. But, why? To clarify, sleep experts consider adolescents to be between the ages of 11 and 22, which means that post-secondary students fall squarely into this category too. Drawing attention to the need for sleep among teens continues to be a worldwide discussion. For the past several years, initiatives across Canada and the United States have been pushing for a later high school start time so that teens can get the sleep they need.

So, aside from feeling tired in the morning, what effect do poor sleep habits have on adolescents? Here are some of the more startling facts:

  • Not getting enough sleep compromises cognitive ability causing a decrease in learning and memory.
  • Sleep deprivation can cause behavior problems and increase symptoms of depression and anxiety.
  • Young adults suffering from sleep deprivation have a higher chance of displaying more risk-taking behaviours due to issues with impulse control, which translates into more car accidents, higher use of alcohol and drugs, and a higher suicide rate.
  • Another study related to adolescent sleep revealed that sleep loss in adolescents causes impairment to physiological, metabolic and psychological health at a time when they are still undergoing major physical and neurological changes.
  • Continued sleep deprivation becomes a risk factor for cardiac disease, hypertension, stroke and type 2 diabetes.

The pressure that young adults feel when they leave home for post-secondary education is tangible. From living away from home for the first time, to having to manage demanding school work, social circles, part time jobs and other obligations, it’s a lot to handle. Combine this with the common sleep culture that boasts sleepless nights and non-existent bedtimes and we’re setting our students up for failure.

Bringing In Sleep Education

We are living in a completely sleep deprived culture, so the fact that educational institutions are investing in sleep education, and recognizing how critical sleep is to student success, marks a huge shift in how society thinks about sleep. Ideally, the importance of sleep and good sleep hygiene should start at home, and a strong sleep foundation should begin well before the teen years. But by making new students complete the “Sleep 101” module, Harvard is investing in their students and working to make them aware of how important sleep is and how it will affect their school experience, both academically and socially.

So, now let’s examine some of the results from the study conducted on the sleep module.

  • Over three quarters of the students responded that they now knew more about sleep and the effects of caffeine on sleep.
  • Nearly half indicated that they were less likely to stay up all night studying.
  • Importantly, 60% of respondents indicated that they were less likely to drive when drowsy.

Obviously, this online module isn’t going to solve all the issues when it comes to getting enough sleep during your college or university days. But it’s a great start. Not only does it reinforce to students that sleep is important, but it also give them the tools and information to take stock of their current sleep habits and how it may be affecting their health and wellness.

Support Your Adolescent’s Sleep Needs

If you have an adolescent that recently went off to school or will be embarking on that milestone in a few short years, it’s never too late to start helping them understand the importance of sleep. Of course, our first tip would be to model the way, meaning prioritize your own sleep and talk about how being well rested supports your overall health and wellness. Additionally, if you want to make sure your teen has all they need to create good sleep habits, check out our back to school sleep shopping list which includes tools that foster a positive sleep environment.

And the next time your sleepy teen stays in bed until noon or your university student wants to come home for a weekend to catch on sleep, take the opportunity to discuss their sleep habits. After all, a good sleep education will certainly help support a good academic education!

Alanna McGinn
Alanna McGinn
Alanna McGinn is Founder and Certified Sleep Expert of Good Night Sleep Site, a global sleep consulting practice. She is host of the ‘This Girl Loves Sleep’ Podcast and author of ‘This Baby Loves Sleep’. Alanna has established the world-wide brand of Good Night Sleep Site as being a #1 sleep resource for families and her and her team of sleep consultants strive in helping families (baby to adults) and corporations overcome their sleep challenges and have well-rested smiles in the morning. You can find out more about Alanna McGinn and how to work with a Good Night Sleep Consultant at www.goodnightsleepsite.com and follow Alanna and all her sleep tips on Instagram - @GNSleepSite.

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