A new study from researchers at Simon Fraser University (SFU) explores the impact of the shift to remote learning and sleep health. The study finds that overall sleep health has been negatively impacted for many college students, due to the destabilization of the circadian clock — an internal 24 hour rhythm that resets with the sun’s light and dark cycles.
The study, conducted by SFU’s Circadian Rhythms and Sleep Lab, followed 80 university students enrolled in the same remote, online course during the summer of 2020. The data collected was then tested against 452 students who had taken the same course prior to the pandemic (2009-2013), in a synchronous, in-person capacity. The findings showed that most of those enrolled in 2020, on average, went to bed approximately 30 minutes later than those who took the course pre-pandemic. Additionally student sleep quality was negatively impacted at night (partly due to increased sleep during the day), despite students having to work their jobs 44% less than pre-pandemic students.
The researchers explain this negative impact on sleep quality could be the result of a number of different factors, with the primary issue being sleep delay. Data finds that 2020 students went to bed later and therefore woke up later. With this delayed sleep timing, students forgo natural sleep exposure, which is most effective in the earliest parts of the day, and crucial to stabilizing circadian rhythm. In taking care to get outside, especially in the morning, students can help keep their bodies and minds on track. This can lead to more productive days and more consistent, quality sleep at night.
The study also stresses the importance of tending to our circadian clock. Social distancing measures to combat COVID-19 led to a decreased exposure to natural light. So while students had more time to sleep, the reduced sunlight exposure actually led to poorer quality sleep. The study concludes by highlighting our current built environment promotes a delayed circadian rhythm, and this often conflicts with the alignment of our social clock. By prioritizing their exposure to daylight and minimizing their time with artificial light, the authors suggest students can improve the quality and duration of their sleep, which leads to overall student success.