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As the saying goes, “something’s gotta give.” Here’s why that ‘something’ doesn’t have to be sleep.

This spring semester, I was teaching a class of undergraduates in psychology. I had prepared what I considered to be a fascinating lecture. Barely 10 minutes into the lecture, I looked around and was confronted by a sea of yawns. Some of the yawning students were even sitting in the front row of seats – mere steps from where I was standing. It looked like I was losing a student in the back, as he slumped down into a comfortable sleeping position. Later that week, I attended a lecture by a colleague. About halfway through, I looked to my right and saw that the person sitting beside me was fast asleep. I was somewhat reassured – at least it’s not just me who’s putting people to sleep. But what exactly is going on here? Are we no longer worried about offending people by our apparent sleepiness? Has sleeping in public become socially acceptable?

Apparently, it has. A quick search reveals that we have a new holiday to celebrate – National Public Sleeping Day which is celebrated on February 28th. On this holiday, anyone may take a nap in a public place that may work for him or her. To aid these efforts, a parody site, Google Naps, has been created to crowdsource ideal napping locations around the world. All fun aside, what’s really behind this surge in public sleeping?

Well, for one thing, we’re sleeping less. In 2012, adults in the United States were sleeping 13 minutes less per night when compared to 1985. This translates into approximately 52.8 million hours of lost sleep since 1985. Also, the percent of people sleeping less than 6 hours per night increased from 22.3% to 29.2% during this period. Whether due to increased stress, the use of technology, or a more harried lifestyle, this sleep loss is especially disturbing knowing that the recommended sleep time duration for an adult is 7 to 9 hours.

So, what about my students? I recently asked a class of senior undergraduates about their sleep. They responded that everyone knows the “2 out of 3 rule”. Apparently, I didn’t, so they explained that students have time for only 2 out of 3 activities – sleeping, socializing, or schoolwork. During exam periods, sleep is sacrificed. The idea that sleep is sacrificed is reflected in a recent Sleep Health article, “Is sleep a luxury that college students cannot afford?” In the article, Dr. Shelly Hershner commented that although college students are notoriously sleep deprived and have poor sleep habits, this behavior may accepted as the norm. In fact, she quoted a student as saying, “If I get through two more years, I will sleep then.” Given what we know about the necessity of sleep for optimal cognitive performance, sleep needs to be prioritized for students to reach their academic potential.

Returning to the topic of public sleeping, by understanding that both my students, and society as a whole, are experiencing heightened sleep deprivation, I am a little less offended by the actions of my classroom sleepers. Instead, I’m even more aware of the need to prioritize sleep in our daily lives.

Natalie Dautovich

Natalie Dautovich, Ph.D., is the National Sleep Foundation's Environmental Scholar. She is also appointed at Virginia Commonwealth University as an Assistant Professor of Counseling Psychology in the Department of Psychology. She received her doctorate in Counseling Psychology from the University of Florida and completed a post-doctoral research fellowship at the University of South Florida. Dr. Dautovich’s research focuses on behavioral sleep medicine and geropsychology. Specifically, she studies sleep and behavioral rhythms such as daily routines across the adult lifespan. She has published articles, book chapters, and a handbook on sleep and health and presented her research at national conferences.

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