Blue light blues: the invisible force sapping students' sleep

Blue light.
Many people don’t realize just how much it affects their lives.
As our heads hit the pillow at night, we yawn and reach for our—Smartphones. Tablets. Laptops—any device with a glowing screen. Most of us do it, and our students are definitely doing it without a second thought. Yet the glow of this light affects us long after we’ve put our devices away and fallen asleep.
Research has shown that the effect of nighttime exposure to blue light is the same as the feeling of jet lag after flying from Toronto to Bangkok. It can alter our internal clock by as many as six time zones, and it only takes 12 minutes of e-reader exposure at night to bring it on. At Harvard, researchers have warned that blue light exposure will alter sleep schedules by up to three hours.
Students might as well take a red eye flight to Thailand before class.
With the late-night cramming and socializing that can often accompany postsecondary study, students don’t need another force in their lives causing sleep deprivation. A 2014 study discovered that more than 90% of US high school students are chronically sleep deprived. A University of Saskatchewan survey also found that a quarter of students reported sleep difficulties that affected their academic performance, and 93% reported feeling tired at least one day a week.
For many institutions, much of the focus on student success has been placed on addressing mental health issues, campus safety, and drug and alcohol abuse. Still, sleep deprivation may also be having significant effects on PSE retention rates and GPAs, and adding to our already strained student health resources.
When we asked our StudentVu panel members about their device habits, we found that out of 1,884 respondents, 91% said they checked their phones within an hour of falling asleep. This means that at minimum, nine out of ten fell somewhere within the timeframe for having their sleep disrupted.
And that’s not to mention how tempted students might be to use a nearby device when they’re already having a tough time falling asleep. Our survey also showed that four out of five StudentVu panelists slept with their phones either on their beds (20%) or beside their beds (60%).
For some panelists, just being near their phones was enough to keep them awake. As one panelist put it:
“Being on my phone before falling asleep makes me stay up later. It distracts you by playing one more game or to finish scrolling through my news feed or watch another related video etc. I'm even filling out this survey in my bed before I go to sleep.”
Others were aware of the specific effects of blue light, but had taken steps to get around it:
“I try to avoid screens for at least half an hour before bed and have installed applications that reduce the blue light that is emitted from the screen to mitigate its disruptive effects on sleep.”
“I wear blue-blocking glasses. So that mitigates at least some of the negative effects of electronic use on my sleep.”
“I also take melatonin to offset the effects of blue light screens.”
There was a significant group of panelists, though, whose opinions went against the current research on blue light and sleep deprivation. They either thought devices had no impact on their sleep, or saw their devices as important tools to help them fall asleep:
“I do not believe the use of technology before bed negatively affects sleep quality.”
“As someone with anxiety, I watch relaxing YouTube videos before bed that put my mind and body to sleep. It very positively affects my sleep.”
Institutions have picked up on the importance of helping students get a good night’s sleep. The University of British Columbia, for example, has developed a sleep resource on its student health website. At the University of California, students get “nap kits” that include ear plugs, eye masks, and sleeping tips. Duke University has cancelled all 8 a.m. classes to help promote getting more sleep. Some universities hand out “nap maps” outlining the best places on campus to take a snooze. Some PSE institutions have banned napping in the library and have educated staff to wake sleeping students up, suggesting they go home or back to their dorms.
The University of Delaware even offers an entire class on napping.
Sleep deprivation can be as serious as a drug or alcohol addiction. Lead investigators on one PSE sleep study, Roxanne Prichard and Monica Hartmann, argue that if PSE institutions teach students about the value of sleep, it will “have a major economic benefit through increased retention.” However, there has yet to be a PSE awareness campaign directed at the effects of nighttime device use and its effects on sleep.
The early symptoms of sleep deprivation begin with anxiety, depression and anger, but soon give way to hallucinations.  Body temperature and glucose levels drop and the immune system fails. Students who get enough sleep are less prone to colds, and 80 to 90% of people with depression and anxiety have underlying sleep problems. There has never been a scientifically confirmed death caused by sleep deprivation, but in 2013, experts quickly identified lack of sleep as a contributing factor to the widely reported death of Moritz Erhardt, a Bank of America intern who died after pulling three “all-nighters” in a row for his job.
So, as modern PSE Student Services grapple with the mental health issues of their students, many have begun identifying sleep issues as a major contributor to overall health. As sleep awareness campaigns begin to spread across Canadian PSE institutions, it is important that these institutions make students aware of the role that late-night device use might play in a world where it is already hard enough for students to get a good night’s sleep.

At Academica Group, we’re proud to work with hundreds of committed, passionate higher ed professionals who want to drive improvement at their institutions. By providing enhanced research capacity and expert guidance, we allow these professionals to work beyond resource limitations and seize more opportunities to positively impact the lives of their students, colleagues, and campus communities.

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