By Jean Balchin 30/03/2018

As a perpetually exhausted university student, I wake every morning to the shrill sound of my alarm clock, and curse myself for embarking on a course of tertiary education. Only yesterday I woke up at 7am to cram for an exam the same morning. It was a nightmare. I drank two coffees, gobbled down a chocolate bar, and executed a number of starjumps and strange poses in the girl’s toilets to wake myself up. If only I could have slept in till about midday, and leisurely headed into university, with all my faculties and sanity intact. I’m sure I would have got a much better grade. 

According to a recent study published in Scientific Reports, social jetlag (the misalignment between a person’s body clock and the environment where they live and work) can have a negative impact on academic performance. This especially holds true for students who would naturally wake up later than their schedules allow (such as me).

Social jetlag isn’t caused by jumping on a plane and heading to London. Instead, it may be caused by watching Netflix late at night, or having a wild night out in town, only to crawl into bed at 5 the next morning. Essentially, it occurs when one adheres to a certain sleep pattern on workdays, only to throw it all out of whack by sleeping late on days off. This disturbance messes up your body’s circadian rhythm, resulting in that horrid groggy feeling I’m sure you’ve experienced on a Monday morning when the alarm goes off at 7 a.m. and your body has to recalibrate all over again.

The phenomenon of social jetlag has become increasingly common over the years, and is associated with increased disease risks, coupled with learning and attention deficits, especially in late rises. That being said, it is difficult to assess the impact of social jetlag on learning outcomes of large groups of people, or identify which individuals may be most affected.

For this study, Benjamin Smarr and Aaron Schirmer used two years of login data from a university learning management system to generate personal daily activity profiles for 14,894 students. They found that only 40.4% of students appeared to have body clocks that were naturally synchronised with their academic schedule.

In contrast, about 49.2% advance and 10.4% delay their activity on class days (when activity started earlier) compared to non-class days.

Because of these delays and advances, 60% of students experienced an every-day social jet lag of at least 30 minutes. This effect was associated with decreased academic performance in students who either advanced and delayed their activity on non-class days, with the latter being the most affected.

Perhaps schools and universities should think about starting their days later, for the good of the student population. I, for one, would greatly appreciate it.

You can read the study in its entirety here.