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The circadian rhythm is the body’s natural sleep-wake cycle. The body senses light and dark and sends signals to the body and the brain when it’s time to sleep and when it’s time to be awake. A lot of things can throw this natural cycle off rhythm and when that happens, it can be difficult to sleep.

Researchers at Northeastern Illinois University recently studied college students and wanted to find the impacts of college life and academic schedules on the circadian rhythm. Class schedules are built generally around an 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. schedule. While some classes take place in the evening, the majority of classes occur during the day. College students often keep irregular schedules, and go to bed later than times normally associated with a daytime schedule. Some college students will go to sleep at midnight or later, and often on the weekends, they will stay up to the early hours of the morning.

The disconnect between an organized schedule and a person’s sleeping schedule can lead to social jet lag. Much like plane jet lag, social jet lag is when you go to bed at varying times. The researchers found that social jet lag among college students leads to learning and attention deficits problems.

For the study, the researchers looked at two years of learning management system login events for 14,894 students at Northeastern Illinois University. They believe the large sample size helped them understand social jet lag across a wider segment of the population.

To gather the large amounts of data, the researchers used data-mining techniques from the information gathered in university’s learning management system. They were able to create individual student profiles over a larger segment of the student population and reached conclusions based on the data.

The logins were analyzed over four semesters for circadian-like patterns. Daily patterns were clearly established among the students, and students were noticeably absent from the server after midnight and before 6 a.m. They were able to determine if individuals prefer going to bed early or late, depending on the login information. That information was then cross-referenced with an individual student’s academic schedule. The researchers found significant changes in login patterns on academic days and non-academic days, as login activity closely corresponded with class schedules.

The researcher noted social jet lag is not the same between individuals, as there appears to be a genetic component. A person’s DNA plays a role in the elasticity of the sleep-wake cycle. One person can go to bed early one night and late the next and experience limited impacts. The same cannot be said for someone else who might be completely thrown off by the change in sleep patterns.

Overall, however, the researchers concluded that social jet lag produced academic deficiencies in many students. The data showed that 40.4% of students aligned their sleep schedule to class schedules, but 49.2% went to bed later than was normal for their academic schedule. For example, a student with classes later in the day could day could go to bed later in the evening, but a student with earlier classes would need to go to bed earlier in the evening to get the required amount of sleep.

The numbers showed a correlation between decrease GPA and students who experienced some form of social jet lag. The greater the difference between sleep schedule and academic schedule the lower the grades.

The researchers noted that it was interesting that student who had night classes achieved a GPA average 0.27 points higher than the average morning class student. The researchers theorized that people who enjoyed going to late bed self-selected later classes and thus picked a schedule that fit better. Overall, however, people who stayed up late did not perform as well as people who went to bed early.

The researchers argue that people who went to bed earlier kept a more rigorous schedule and were less likely to experience social jet lag. These students went to bed consistently at same time each night. On the other hand, people who went to bed late were more likely to vary their sleep schedule on a day-to-day basis, and thus they experienced a greater impact from social jet lag.

The researchers concluded that universities might want to advise students about the relationship between sleep schedules and academic performance. The students could be counseled to select classes that better fit with their sleep patterns, and thus would be giving themselves a better chance of success.

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