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A lesser-known reason why university students aren’t getting enough sleep

Sacrificing sleep for socialising. Source: Shutterstock

Sleep is important. For students, proper shut-eye at the prescribed ideal of eight hours supports the ability to wake up refreshed and ready to take on the college lectures and assignments.

But the majority of university students report that they do not get enough quality sleep. Up to 60 percent have trouble falling or staying asleep, missing out on all the restorative qualities sleep is supposed to provide. In turn, they increase their consumption of over-the-counter sleep prescriptions and recreational drugs to cope.

New research suggests there could be one unexplored reason behind this: flatmates.

Living in halls or dorms as a first-year, many of whom may not have slept in such environments until now, can affect students’ quality of sleep. A study of 15 first-year students who lived on-campus at a UK university found that flatmates emerged as a key factor.

Writing for The Conversation, Lucy Foulkes, Lecturer of Psychology in Education at the University of York, said: “Together, the interviews suggest that social factors – other students – may be a key contributor to sleep problems on-campus. This makes a lot of sense when we remember that undergraduate students are still adolescents, and that a key task in adolescence is to fit in, be accepted and establish relationships with peers.”

Flatmates can cause “a lot of noise” and coax peers into socialising at night. Parties, loud music, shouting, door slamming are some of the ways this “barrage of noise” by flatmates disrupted their sleep. Participants said they were unable to ask them to tone it down or to call security on their fellow students.

There are many opportunities to socialise in halls too, which leads to many missed bedtimes and reduced sleep. Students would choose going to pubs or staying up late in their flat to socialise, even though they knew it was bad for their sleep.

Lack of sleep is the silent epidemic afflicting millions throughout industrialised nations. As social and employment patterns change, so do our sleep patterns. Neuroscientist and Author of Why We Sleep, Matthew Walker, told the Financial Times that together with sleep-disrupting consumer products, this “is having a catastrophic impact on our health, our life expectancy, our safety, our productivity and the education of our children”. Eight hours a night is a must, and anything less at a consistent rate can raise the risk of contracting ailments such as Alzheimer’s, cancer, diabetes, heart disease and stroke.

Lack of sleep is the silent epidemic in public health. Source: Hernan Sanchez/Unsplash

University students are not excluded from today’s insomnia-battling group. Studies have shown that sleep quantity and quality are equally important concerns, up there with alcohol and drug use, in predicting student grades and chances of graduating. According to a US study of more than 55,000 college students, failure to get enough quality sleep can increase the likelihood of being unable to handle their chosen course load and less likely to reach their academic potential.

Foulkes notes that her study is just about the students’ perceptions of how these factors affected their sleep and does not assess the extent to which these social factors cause poor sleep quality.

“So future studies need to be conducted to assess, with more certainty, the extent to which social factors cause poor sleep quality in adolescence. For now, this study highlights how for many students a fundamental part of moving to university – living with people their own age – may actually negatively impact sleep quality.”

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