Shut-Eye 101: Online Program Helps College Students Sleep

June 07, 2018 12:00 PM

The chaos of college can derail good sleep habits. Simple lifestyle adjustments may get students back on track, a new U-M study finds.

There’s no question that college students are busy. They’re rushing from course to course, packing in work shifts or extracurriculars, hitting the books and socializing.

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Too often, sleep is the opportunity cost.

More than 72 percent of college students say they’re sacrificing shut-eye, reporting insufficient weeknight sleep, according to a new study published in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine.

Those deficits surpass other age groups: “Studies have shown college students may be the most sleep-deprived group,” says Shelley Hershner, M.D., the study’s co-author and a neurologist who directs the University of Michigan Collegiate Sleep Clinic.

But taking small daily steps toward better sleep can make a big difference over time.

To conduct their study, Hershner and Louise O’Brien, Ph.D., M.S. both of U-M’s Sleep Disorders Centers introduced 254 college students to a brief online sleep education program to address bedtime habits, mood and sleep quality and then compared those students to a control group on several sleep-related questions.

After eight weeks following the program’s simple recommendations, the number of participating students who met the criteria for depressive symptoms was 20 percent lower than that of the control group.

Hershner explained her findings and what young adults can learn from the free online program.

Why is it important for college students to prioritize good sleep?

Hershner: Almost all students complain of insufficient sleep and poor sleep quality, and depression is rampant on college campuses. We know that poor sleep quality, insomnia and insufficient sleep have a strong relationship with depression.

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A lot of this relates to the college environment, but insufficient sleep and poor sleep quality is not all just bad behavior. The college sleep environment with variable wake time due to classes, late nights due to examinations and the tendency to be “night owl” all make it hard to have regular sleep patterns.

We designed this intervention so that college students know small changes make a difference, so we need to provide education in a way that’s important to them and ties in academic success.

What does your “Sleep to Stay Awake” online education program involve?

Hershner: The website includes a quiz about your sleep habits and level of sleepiness. For example, one question asks what time you would get up if you were entirely free to plan your day; another asks how difficult it is for you to get up in the morning. It takes about 10 minutes.

The module then separates students into sleep personality profiles to capture their internal clock and their level of sleepiness. Recommendations are personalized for each sleep personality profile, with suggestions on how to be more alert and study more effectively based on your circadian rhythm.

After the eight weeks, 50 percent of students in the intervention group made changes to their behaviors.

The program is free for anyone to use, unlike other educational resources that are classroom-based and limited to the number of students they can reach.

How does the program address sleep hygiene tips tied to technology use, sleeping in and caffeine differently than other sleep guidelines?

Hershner: Instead of giving students every suggestion we would discuss in a clinic visit, we focus on three main behaviors with smaller changes that they can more easily accomplish.

SEE ALSO: 5 Tips for Better Sleep (Counting Sheep Not Required)

For example, accepted recommendations actually urge people to turn off electronics two hours before bed to avoid both blue light and stressful material but college students really can’t do that.

Even if they’re trying to model good behaviors, much of their school material is electronic and they may have assignments due at midnight. So, we modified our suggestions to say, “Could you be off the electronics for a half-hour or an hour before bed?”

Similarly, existing sleep recommendations urge keeping the same sleep/wake times seven days a week. It’s hard for students to keep a regular sleep schedule because they have irregular classes, so we try to meet them in the middle.

If we tell the student to just sleep in for one or two hours on the weekend or off days, instead of urging a blanket ban on sleeping in. College students tell us they’re willing to try that. Sixty-two percent of the intervention group reported a more regular sleep schedule, compared to 49 percent of the control group.

Finally, caffeine is especially important if you’re having a hard time falling asleep, and important in this age group. We recommend students stop caffeine eight hours before bed.

Visit Sleep to Stay Awake to take the quiz and receive actionable tips tailored to your sleep personality profile.