Every September, some 27,000 University of Michigan undergraduates arrive in Ann Arbor for the start of a new academic year. With this mass influx of 18-22 year olds, Ann Arbor, like many college towns, is transformed. Storefronts advertise back-to-school specials on everything from burritos to bank accounts. Among these, a bulk deal on the energy drink, Red Bull. The ad features a cartoon of a student contentedly quadruple-tasking with the tag line: "Nobody ever wishes they'd slept more in college".
While I hope many students will ignore this ad, I cannot. Ironically I first saw it while walking home from a meeting with campus administrators who are developing a wellness course for U-M students (Among the course goals, promoting healthy sleep habits!). As I made my way back to my apartment, passing hundreds of students along the way, I grew increasingly upset. I should say that I am a PhD student in public health and higher education and my focus is on college student wellbeing. Prior to U-M, I worked in residential life as a live-in advisor at Harvard University. Suffice it say, I care deeply about college students and am primed to be sensitive to messages like this. And it's not just Red Bull; college students (and adolescents and young adults more generally) are constantly bombarded with messages that promote negative health behaviors. For example, the widely-shared diagram "College: you can only choose two" implies that students must sacrifice one of either 'good grades', 'social life', or 'enough sleep'. In reality, these things are inextricably linked.
As I walked past the Undergraduate Library, I saw students hunched over books (What are you studying? Classes haven't even started!) and I thought, as I so often do, about the pressures of college life. In today's campus culture--where competition is fiercer than ever (for grades, for internships, for social status)--telling students to sleep more (and thus study/party less) is at odds with the FOMO/YOLO perceptions of what it means to be 'successful' in college. Sleep deprivation is the norm on college campuses: approximately 25% of students sleep less than 6.5 hours per night (7-8 hours is recommended), 20% stay up all night at least once per month, and 35% stay up until 3am at least once per week .
As I turned onto my street, I resisted the impulse to approach a group of students sprawled out on picnic blankets on their front lawn: Hey guys, welcome back! I'm Sarah, I'd say in a super chill voice. I live just down there. Do you have a few minutes to talk about sleep habits? No doubt this introduction would have gone over really well. Here's what I would have said to those students (after they'd made room for me on their blankets, of course)...
First things first, I'm not saying your goal should be to get 8 hours of sleep each and every night. In fact, I'm not trying to tell you what to do at all--you're (mostly) adults now. I just think you should know a few things.
Realizing their good fortune in this moment, the students would, on their own accord, put away their cell phones so as to take advantage of this spontaneous learning opportunity without distraction...
Sleep, I'd say, both in quantity and quality, is very important for academic success. Sleep improves memory, attention, verbal fluency, abstract thinking, and problem-solving. When you're exhausted, it's harder to pay attention in class, to study efficiently, and to perform well on exams. While you sleep, your brain actually works in ways it can't while you're awake; it creates new pathways for learning and memory. It's also important to keep a somewhat regular sleep schedule. Say, for example, you sleep 1-8am on weekdays and 4am-12pm on weekends. Your circadian clock (your internal sense of day and night) gets really confused. This negatively impacts your mental health, which we'll talk about in just a moment, and contributes to the issues I mentioned in terms of cognitive functioning. Research shows that getting up earlier on the weekends leads to higher college GPAs . In other words, you need z's to get A's, am I right?!
After we'd finished laughing and high-fiving, I'd go on to explain that...
...sleep is also extremely important for your mental health and mood. Lack of sleep actually messes with hormones that control mood and stress levels. When you're exhausted, it's much harder to cope with inevitable set-backs and challenges. A low grade on a chemistry exam or an unanswered text message--things you might otherwise bounce back from rather quickly--can become cause for full-on emotional distress when you're sleep deprived. Unhealthy sleep habits also increase risk for and symptoms of serious mental health problems. Based on epidemiological research regarding age of onset, which I won't go in to now, the college years are a vulnerable time for the emergence and worsening of mental health problems like depression and anxiety. These problems are common on campuses across the country--about 1 in 3 students experiences significant mental health problems during college . For these students, proper sleep is especially important .
At this point, I'd indicate I had just a few more things to cover. As college students tend to do when the end of a discussion is near, they'd listen with increasing attentiveness so as not to miss a word of what I'd say next...
Poor sleep habits affect your physical health in several ways, including by weakening your immune system. Sleep helps your body fight off common infections. Many students get sick during or after exams in part because they've neglected sleep in order to study (which we now know to be an ineffective strategy!). The consequences of an all-nighter can be far more serious than a hit to your immune system or GPA. We're all aware of the dangers of drunk driving but 'drowsy driving' can be just as dangerous. If you've been awake for 24 hours, your performance is just as impaired as if you were legally drunk .
As they took this in, I'd realize it was getting late, so I'd wrap things up...
Alright guys, so here's the bottom line. You and I both know there will be an all-nighter here, a late night road trip there, what have you. Enjoy those adventures (and the ones that take place during daylight too). Just don't mistake not sleeping as a prerequisite to college life.
They'd nod knowingly and with that, I'd gather my things and stand. They'd look disappointed, pleading for me to hangout just a little bit longer. They'd ask more and more questions about the things we'd talked about ('At least tell us about the epidemiological research regarding age of onset that you mentioned earlier!'). I'd put up my hand to hush them and I'd write down a list of references to the various research studies I'd mentioned (which I've also included below!). As I'd walk away, I'd hear them say 'I hope I'm that cool when I'm old!' Damnit, I'd groan under my breath, shaking my head and rolling my eyes before making the final two-block journey home, carefully traversing a landscape of broken beer bottles. But that's a story for another day...
 Lund, HG, Reider, BD, Whiting, AB, & Prichard, JR (2010). Sleep patterns and predictors of disturbed sleep in a large population of college students. Journal of Adolescent Health, 46(2), 124-132.
 Trockel, MT, Barnes, MD, & Egget, DL (2000). Health-related variables and academic performance among first-year college students: implications for sleep and other behaviors. Journal of American College Health, 49(3), 125-131.
 Lipson, S, Gaddis, S, Heinze, J, Beck, K, & Eisenberg, D (2015). Variations in student mental health and service utilization across institutional characteristics. Journal of American College Health, 63(6): 388-96.
 Hershner, SD, & Chervin, RD (2014). Causes and consequences of sleepiness among college students. Nature and Science of Sleep, 6, 73.
 Williamson, AM, & Feyer, AM (2000). Moderate sleep deprivation produces impairments in cognitive and motor performance equivalent to legally prescribed levels of alcohol intoxication. Occupational and Environmental Medicine, 57(10), 649-655.