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Sleep Deprivation: An Epidemic No One’s Talking About

By Arwen Low


Article originally published in The Plant's October 2020 Issue

Illustrator: Aria Dines

I’m a bit self-conscious about sharing my sleep schedule with you.

Some nights I’m so exhausted that I collapse at 6 pm, miss dinner, and wake at 11, disoriented and strangely nihilistic. Others, I whittle away my time, flipping between TikTok compilations and the essay I have due in two days; when I rise to brush my teeth at 3 am, a sleep-deprived Gollum greets me in the mirror.

I wanted to see if I was alone in this, so I set up a sleep lab with 11 Dawson students to track their sleep schedules for a week and as it turns out, I’m not.

85 nights of data from the 11 participants were collected. On average, people reported getting 6.4 hours of sleep, well below the Canadian Paediatric Society’s recommended 8-10 hours for teenagers. This was for a variety of reasons, watching video content late at night being the most common.

However, the one that worries me most is that 24.7% of students had done school work right before going to bed each week. The average time those students went to sleep at? 1:56 a.m. As Jenny Odell discusses in her 2019 book How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy, the framing idea behind the global workers’ rights movement of the early 20th century: “8 hours for work, 8 hours for rest, 8 hours for what we will”, simply isn’t upheld anymore. We can see this in midnight deadlines given by professors, which are themselves assumptions that our work days extend till then. The freedom devices grant us blurs the lines between our waking and sleeping hours.

Notions of productivity that students learn are detrimental to our sleep and to our short and long term health. The phrase “sleep is for the weak” is usually tossed around jokingly, but I see it as indicative of a larger issue: we are taught that strength lies in maximizing our productivity. Because our time is seen as a commodity, we prioritize work over sleep.

A 2016 study conducted by the Canadian Sleep Society showed me that my poor sleep schedule was more common than I thought: 26% of adolescents aged 14-17 got less than the recommended 8 hours of sleep a night. Compare this with the results from the 2017 census on sleep by Statistics Canada where 1/3 of Canadians reported not getting enough sleep, and we have on our hands a public health crisis.

What’s stopping us from sleeping well? Poor diet, lack of physical exercise, too much screen time and insufficient exposure to natural light can be especially prevalent during a pandemic. Other factors which impact our natural circadian rhythm, or sleep-wake cycle, are depression, heightened stress, or pre-existing health conditions.

It seems like we just can’t catch a break; worsening what’s been considered a global sleep epidemic since 2011 is the current COVID-19 pandemic. Covid-19 has disrupted our daily lives, making it harder to keep a consistent schedule, get physical exercise, maintain a healthy diet and even go outside to get natural light.

The current order to self-isolate and stay home is heightening feelings of isolation and depression. Fears about the long-term effects of Covid-19 on our health and the health of our loved ones, our job security, as well as the difficulties we’re facing adapting to online learning are contributing to feelings of stress and anxiety. Because we’re spending more time on our screens for school and connecting with friends, we’re exposing ourselves to blue light later on at night. Essentially, our sleep was bad, and COVID-19 is making it worse.

Yet getting a good night’s sleep is more important than ever. Sleep affects our mood, our judgement, our ability to learn and retain information, and even our ability to cope with stress and depression. What’s more, sleep deprivation weakens our immune system, which is so crucial to our ability to recover from illnesses like the coronavirus. According to the United Kingdom National Health Service, long-term sleep deprivation makes us more vulnerable to heart attacks, strokes, diabetes, obesity, high blood pressure, mood disorders like depression and anxiety, and infertility.

After a week of tracking the 11 students’ sleep, I gave them a few tips for establishing healthy sleep schedules based on recommendations from Harvard Health: turn off your screen an hour before bed, get sunlight and physical exercise, eat healthily, and only use your bed for sleep. I know from experience that this is easier said than done, but that doesn't minimize the importance of making an effort.

We need to start valuing sleep as integral to our well-being, and not something that can be cut back on to make room for work or play. And to my fellow insomniac workaholics out there, remember that you’re worth more than what you can accomplish in a given day.



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