Many Colleges Wake Up to the Problems of Sleep Deprivation

It’s an age-old predicament: Caffeine-fueled college students cramming for exams and writing papers until the crack of dawn, then skipping or snoozing through classes. Sleep deprivation has long been considered a rite of passage, a point of pride, even.

But now, alarmed by recent studies tying lack of sleep to poor academic performance, college officials are urging students just to go to bed. More than a dozen Massachusetts schools have begun waging campaigns touting the benefits of sleep through dorm seminars, posters, and catchy slogans like, “Want A’s? Get Z’s.”

Wellesley College spreads the message by throwing dorm pajama parties with tea and popcorn. Tufts University passes out sleep masks, ear plugs, and a CD of relaxation tracks. Bentley College holds a weeklong contest called the Biggest Snoozer, and gives away memory foam pillows and white noise machines to students who log the most hours of shut-eye. And Massachusetts Institute of Technology has enlisted the help of far-flung parents, alerting them to watch for warning signs such as e-mails sent at 4 a.m.

“For college students, sleep is the most dispensable thing,” said Dr. Vanessa Britto, director of health services at Wellesley. “Most people feel it’s a badge of honor. ‘I didn’t sleep. Parentheses, aren’t I great?’ Until you point out to them that pulling an all-nighter is the equivalent of driving drunk and is detrimental to their reaction time and memory.”

Universities, though, have their work cut out for them to change such a culturally ingrained habit on campus.

With 24 hours of online entertainment available, students today are tempted by myriad diversions other than school books. They’re gambling, catching up on their favorite television shows, playing video games, or chatting with virtual friends — then trying to study into the wee hours of the morning.

“It’s like, well, I could do my calculus homework or it sounds like the girls next door are doing something fun so I’ll just walk over there,” said Kelsey Barton, a freshman at Tufts, who said she has been averaging about three hours of sleep a night since starting college this month. “I don’t want to miss out.”

With so many distractions, Barton often doesn’t start on schoolwork until midnight, when she’s so tired that it takes her even longer to finish. She downs coffee and Mountain Dew to make it through classes and cross-country practice.

“It’s a cycle that I’m now kind of stuck in, and I get more and more tired,” she lamented.

College officials say more students seem to be getting stuck on the sleep-deficit treadmill. Skimping on shut-eye has become such a concern that the American College Health Association revamped its annual health survey this fall to include six questions focused on sleep instead of one, said Mary Hoban, director of the Baltimore-based National College Health Assessment.

Nearly 40 percent of students said they had felt rested on no more than two days in the previous week, according to the latest data from fall 2007.

“It’s not like I choose to sleep as little as I do,” said Colleen Huysman, a Boston University junior who says she gets five hours of sleep a night and chews gum to stay awake in class. “There’s just so much going on that sleep is at the bottom of the priority list. There aren’t enough hours in the day for that to happen.”

Huysman’s attitude, pervasive among her peers, speaks to the fear of BU officials, who launched the university’s sleep campaign two years ago after more students started coming to campus clinics complaining of headaches and fatigue, symptoms often related to lack of sleep. BU’s initiative includes seminars, a new website of sleep facts, and a special Facebook site depicting students engaged in healthy habits such as exercise and sleep.

College health directors say they struggle to make students aware of the serious health and academic consequences of sleep deprivation without nagging or lecturing - especially when more students are venturing beyond old methods of using energy drinks and caffeine pills to stay awake. The truly desperate have resorted to prescription drugs like Adderall, which is used to treat attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder and boost concentration.

“Sleep is one of those issues we see as much more of a problem than our students do, so it’s a little tough getting our message across,” said Dr. David McBride, director of student health services at BU.

Many BU students said they had never heard of the school’s campaign. Some simply stay up late as a matter of course.

BU junior Solange Garcia said she goes to bed around 3 a.m. on most nights when she doesn’t have a lot of homework. Two or three times a week, she pulls an all-nighter for papers due the following day.

“I used to leave a lot to the last minute because I felt like I produced my best work under pressure,” said Garcia, echoing a common refrain. “In turn, I would stay up all night, or as late as my body would allow, and just grasp as much information as I possibly could.”