Sleepless in Southgate

Living the late-night life: In the last dozen years, the number of sleep-deprived college students across the country has doubled.
January 31, 2005

I have seen the future, and it is heavily caffeinated. This warm fall night, the Wednesday after a stretched-out election, is looking like an endless evening for me--even as it's barely beginning for students.

At my fueling station, the Bryan Center's smoothie bar, I request the "Energy Booster." The cashier tells me, "A lot of people ask for the Energy Booster, but that's just a supplement." So I give her a fuller order, a smoothie decorously dubbed "Peachy Pineapple," which is advertised as containing some indecipherable minerals, an array of potent-sounding vitamins, and--topping the ingredients list--caffeine.

I am out to prove a theory--that Duke is inculcating its students into a lifestyle of sleep deprivation. All of us went through the experience of dorm revelry at odd hours, of a major study project propelling an all-nighter. Now, has the occasional sleep interruption become the expected sleep routine?

Sleeplessness is "a caricature of the expectations" of super-achieving students, says Larry Moneta, vice president for student affairs. They are programmed to be busy, he says, and sleep isn't an important item on their achievement agendas. A new book, Numbers, offers the finding that the average museum visitor spent ten seconds in front of a painting in 1987, and spent just three seconds a decade later. That statistic of a culture on the run speaks to this generation.

X-ray of human body

Hanging out in the TV lounge. Photo: Chris Hildreth

 

Theirs are lives without pause; they are hyperactive and hyper-linked. As high-school students, 80 percent of them, by current estimates, spent evenings and weekends in organized activities. In college, their date books show meetings extending through ten o'clock or eleven o'clock at night, or later. One freshman tells me about a review session for a math course at one o'clock in the morning. Last year's senior class included 334 students with double majors. According to registrar Bruce Cunningham, 418 students set to graduate this spring have declared second or third majors--though, when graduation comes around, he says, it's likely that some of those students won't fulfill their intentions.

Jim Clack, director of counseling and psychological services (CAPS), cites studies showing that, in the last dozen years, the number of sleep-deprived college students across the country has doubled. That's despite the phenomenon of "power napping," which, in the Duke context, has students catching up on their sleep in places like Perkins Library, the Bryan Center, and the East Campus-West Campus bus. There's no one-size-fits-all prescription for how much sleep a student will need, though most people seem to need between seven and nine hours. "Students arrive at Duke, and one really interesting thing happens," Clack says. "They start going to bed at two o'clock and three o'clock in the morning; they start to become sleep deprived right away."

They reach their sleepy states owing to familiar and not-so-familiar factors. Many of them never shared a bedroom at home, so they have a hard time dealing with the distractions of a noisy hall or even a roommate with different sleeping habits. These students have been raised to be good rules-followers, and finally they feel freed up from the rules-bound routine of high school. They're keen on plugging into a social network. Thanks to the Internet and the cell phone, that social network stretches across space and time; it is elastic and inexhaustible.

The pervasiveness of sleep deprivation across Duke is fairly recent, says history professor Peter Wood. Wood, who has taught at Duke thirty years, talks about an "epidemic" of sleeplessness. "It's in the category with binge drinking and bulimia. It's taken us a long time to recognize this, because, obviously, its effects aren't as public and dramatic," he says. "The funny thing about sleep deprivation is that you can actually go to class and keep your eyes open and take notes and even answer yes-or-no questions. But in terms of having a vigorous discussion, where you're responding impromptu to people's comments and observations, that becomes much tougher."

If you ask students--as I asked sixteen of them in a journalism seminar--late-night life is pretty tough, or pretty long. From this informal sleep survey, I learned that the average amount of sleep they had had the previous night was six hours. Several reported four hours. Most went to bed between two and three o'clock in the morning. Some were awake until 4:30 or later. What's the longest that they'd gone without sleep? The most extreme response was, "Five days, all in Lilly Library during exam week last spring, writing a thirty-page term paper and two eight-page papers, and studying for a three-hour exam." One student pointed to four sleepless days, "aided by Adderral." Another, close behind, answered, "Three days--big mistake."

It seems clear how these students stay awake. In the survey, all of them said they consume caffeine-laden drinks, mostly coffee and Diet Cokes--up to eight a day. For several weeks this fall, Alpine Bagels, a food franchise in the West Campus Union, displayed table tents promoting Red Bull, a super-caffeinated drink. The slogan: "Nobody ever wishes they'd slept more during college."

Night shift: hanging out behind a poker face, freshman Chris Ehlinger

Night shift: hanging out behind a poker face, freshman Chris Ehlinger. Photo:Chris Hildreth

 

Now and again, most students do seem to yearn for better rest. But just why they stay awake as much as they do is a more complex issue. Many of them, of course, are hooked on communications technology. They're talking into cell phones at all hours of the day, and night. Wood sees the cell phone as "the replacement for the cigarette," a fixation that's hardly necessary but is powerfully seductive. Clack says he once counseled a freshman who talked with her mother by phone three hours every day; the freshman had additional cell-phone time with her boyfriend and her high-school friends. If those weren't always late-night exchanges, Clack suggests, they forced the student into late-night study habits.

The computer is at least as much a late-night distraction as the cell phone. Responding to my survey, students made statements like, "I am likely to be on my computer until right before I sleep." One reported alternating between "doing papers" and "playing Yahoo Pool" on the computer. Others had the habit of "reading every story on ESPN.com--and I mean every story," or spending "a good hour checking my horoscope." A typical comment was, "I talk on Instant Messenger, most likely between the hours of eleven o'clock at night and one o'clock in the morning."

Such electronic exuberance is confirmed in the snapshots of the campus over twenty-four hours provided by Robert Currier, director of data communications in Duke's Office of Information Technology. Currier's data track the aggregate electronic traffic on campus, including peer-to-peer file sharing, as well as electronic mail. The highest data flow coming in and going out is from about nine o'clock at night to just before midnight. But there's steady traffic until four o'clock in the morning. The only really quiescent period is between four o'clock and six o'clock in the morning.

From his office at the seat of power, behind "Danger, High Voltage" signs, Aurel Selezeanu M.B.A. '94, Duke's assistant director for electrical services, confirms that this is a powered-up environment. His energy-use graphs of East Campus show that the peak time for activities in the dorms is midnight. From there an energy-use decline sets in. What that probably means, he says, is that students are leaving the dorms for a few hours; his graphs show an upward spike around 2:30 in the morning.

On this Wednesday night, around ten o'clock, the Bryan Center is mirroring its daytime dynamics. Students tap away at e-mail stations, fixate on laptop computers, and cluster in small study groups. The campus McDonald's, next door to the smoothie bar, is closed so that a drain line can be replaced. "Thank you for supporting the progress at Duke University," reads a sign alongside the golden arches.

I make my own progress to the Wilson Recreation Center, which produces signs of more student activity--students in a slow-motion tai chi class and a fast-paced social-dance class, students confronting various exercise machines (including one treadmill walker talking on her cell phone) and swimming in each of the lap pool's eight lanes.

Nearby, on Clocktower Quad, there's another display of athleticism. A deliveryman for Cinelli's--which boasts among its offerings "famous pizza, calzones, and things"--is making a mad rush to a dorm. Clutching a famous pizza, or at least a pizza about to find an appreciative audience, he tells me that delivery on campus extends to one o'clock in the morning. "A lot of people are up studying late," he says. And a lot of people are fueling their studying with food. Jim Wulforst, director of dining services, says that a year's revenue for campus delivery comes to about $2.5 million. (Dining Services gets a percentage when students use their food points for deliveries.) Most of that is for business between the hours of eight o'clock at night and three o'clock in the morning.

The business of late-night studying is centered in Perkins Library. One yawning undergraduate is applying his yellow highlighting pen to an essay called "Trading Across Time and Space." Another student is poring over an almanac of Greece, 1905-07. The computer cluster is jammed. There, a student is intent on bonding. For an impending chemistry test, he's reviewing chemical-bonding energy; the test is scheduled for seven o'clock the next morning, the only common time, it seems, to gather all the students enrolled in every section of the course. Another is working on a paper about comfort food; she says she likes the free printer and the immediate access to library materials. Just upstairs, by the Gothic Reading Room, a student is chewing on his own comfort food, a peanut-butter cookie. He estimates that he'll be studying psychology until midnight.

It isn't quite that late when I reach the fringes of East Campus, which--as an all-freshman campus--presumably has its own psychology. About a half-dozen female students are painting the East Campus bridge. Amid a jumble of painted, pointed, and political messages ("France is Kerry country," "No Botox"), they're advertising a Saturday off-campus party that, they expect, will draw traditionally white, black, and Latino fraternities and sororities.

East Campus' Trinity Caf? is packed with freshmen clutching their cell phones, inhabiting their iPod worlds, and cradling their laptops. There are table tents all around--here, courtesy not of a drink product line but of the Duke Annual Fund. They display quotes from movies. One has a message that's just right for the night's mission: "This will be fun. We'll stay up late, swapping manly stories, and in the morning ... I'm making waffles." On an average weekday, less than half the freshman class will show up for a breakfast of waffles or whatever at the Marketplace, next door, and mostly between nine and eleven o'clock.

At a freshman residence hall, Southgate, I find sophomore resident adviser Matt Dearborn. It's just after eleven o'clock and Dearborn, just back from a campus performance of Rent and facing up to his reading assignment in Ulysses, introduces me around the dorm. Even as the faculty resident, Anthony Kelley, assistant professor of music, announces, "I have to turn in now," Southgate is energized.

In the lounge, several students are clustered as the Tonight Show is finishing its evening course. Jay Leno is asking people on the street to complete aphorisms, including "Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and..." It's clear that any wisdom in these surroundings won't come from early bedtimes. A larger group of students is intensely engaged in Texas Hold 'Em, a popular brand of poker on campus. They're not very communicative with a visitor. Just beyond that group, enjoying a slice of pizza, Walker Fulks is juggling his coursework in math, Russian literature, history, and chemistry. A possible pre-med, he says he'll be studying until three o'clock in the morning. Fulks--asleep this morning at four o'clock, up at 7:30--juggles nighttime gatherings of the Campus Crusade, two-hour practices for club water polo, and house council meetings at 10:30 p.m. He says he spends a half-hour to an hour every night on his cell phone with family and friends.

Room 323 has a message scrawled on a display board, "The Room That Doesn't Sleep," which could serve as a dorm-wide motto. There, Devon Clarke is vigorously engaged in video-game action. Down the hall, about ten students mingle in what is nominally a triple room. Zach Robbins is absorbed in a game of online poker--"not for real money," he points out. "I can play for hours. It's the biggest time-waste thing I do." But even if he weren't so absorbed, the dynamics of the dorm would hardly permit an early-to-bed routine. "People are in the hall until three o'clock the morning," he says, and they're engaged in imaginative pursuits like "Wall Ball," which is "racquetball without the racquet," as he describes it. "I don't have the motivation to go to sleep."

At least one third-floor resident does have motivation to go to sleep. Jerry Chen is a member of the crew team, and, as he puts it, "Crew is pretty challenging as far as getting enough sleep." During the fall season, he has practice at five o'clock in the morning every Monday and Wednesday, afternoon practice on other weekdays, and practice at nine in the morning on Saturday. "I usually go to sleep after midnight, making those five o'clock practices pretty hard to wake up for," he says. "The few times I tried to go to sleep at ten or eleven, I didn't have much luck. People were talking or playing music in the hall. For the past semester, I have been constantly tired, taken a lot of naps, and fallen asleep in my classes a few times. If I didn't take naps, it would have probably been worse."

Maybe it's getting worse. Dearborn, the R.A., tells me some days later that his hall mates have become hooked on a new video game, which is keeping them awake past five o'clock in the morning. The game is called Halo 2; it pits space marines against aliens in a graphically dazzling display. Reportedly it had sales of $125 million in its first twenty-four hours on the market--the biggest single-day debut in entertainment history, eclipsing even Hollywood blockbusters.

Couch crasher: napping in the Bryan Center

 Electronic evening: freshman Jack Tao at his laptop. Photo: Chris Hildreth

 

These students, and their peers beyond the freshman dorm, show varying assessments of the effects of sleep deprivation. Respondents in my classroom survey noted feeling "punchy," "moody," "grumpy," or "irritable," or being "just altogether out of it." In doing schoolwork, as they variously put it, "my attention span is affected"; "I just can't stay focused"; and "I eventually crash and end up sleeping through a bunch of my classes." One student observed, "My 8:30 a.m. class is fifteen zombies trying to discuss Renaissance poetry." Another offered a perspective on causes and consequences alike: "If I slept more, I'd do worse in school, because I wouldn't get everything done. Usually my sleep deprivation is due to academics."

And one respondent resisted the notion that sleeplessness influences interactions with others. As this student sees it, the larger point is that social life inspires sleeplessness.

Students who visit the counseling center, says Jim Clack, are asked about their sleeping habits. Lack of sleep contributes to depression, he says. "If you're anxious, it will make you more anxious. If you're depressed, it will make you more depressed. And in general, the number of students who we see, and who are presenting difficult and severe emotional problems, has skyrocketed."

The sleep drive is a biological imperative that can be fought but not conquered, says Bill Wohlgemuth, a research psychologist in Duke's Sleep Disorders Clinic. Ignoring that imperative will compromise cognitive abilities, including learning, remembering, paying attention, and concentrating. "To be sleep-deprived and then try to learn is very difficult. It's harder to make a decision, it's harder to figure out a complex problem." If a student sits through class in an adequately rested state, and then sets out to process the material while sleep-deprived, that, too, spells trouble. "If you're pulling an all-nighter, that's not going to be a beneficial way of studying, because you are not going to be able to remember the material as well," Wohlgemuth says. "One good thing that happens when you're sleeping is a clearing-out process. Your mind gets rid of all the irrelevant stuff, all the stuff that's not important, and it zones in on the important stuff."

He compares the burden of sleeplessness to another convention of student life--the burden of dragging around a backpack. "Your level of sleepiness is how heavy the backpack is. Every minute that you're going through your day, every minute that you're awake, there's a new stone being dropped in the backpack. So throughout the day, it's getting heavier and heavier." You may not feel the weight of the "backpack," because an internal clock, a sense that when it's daytime, the body needs to be awake, will kick in--the equivalent of "helping hands" that lighten the burden. But the internal clock, like the helping hands, will wear down. "At a certain point in the day, the helping hands are telling you, 'All right, let me get a little bit of a breather here.' And then by the end of the day, the helping hands say, 'See ya,' and then you crash."

In my campus rounds, I find myself ready to crash by two o'clock in the morning. A bastion of late-night activity, the third-floor office of The Chronicle, is going strong. The editor, Karen Hauptman, a junior, is editing copy in the pre-electronic-age fashion, using a red pen. She anticipates finishing her duties around four o'clock. The sports editor, Jake Poses, also a junior, says he hasn't slept for forty-eight hours. "I'm not being too articulate. I'm tired." As I leave, someone shouts, "I want to go home!"

Before I go home, I land at Rick's Diner on West Campus, which is open twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. The students chewing on biscuits and hash-browns, or feeding off a supply of e-mail messages, or, in one case, digesting the substance of a psychology textbook, seem to find it strange to be asked why they're here at this hour. It's the only place where they can find food, they say. And there's the luxury of the wireless connection. Wulforst of Duke dining reports that in the last academic year, Rick's Diner brought in just under a million dollars. Eighty percent of that business occurred between ten o'clock at night and four o'clock in the morning.

Are students going to shake off sleeplessness after they graduate from Rick's to their neighborhood diner? Perhaps. But in the professions they're destined to join, working hard, without the intrusion of sleep, is a badge of honor. Jessica Moulton '99, an associate with McKinsey & Company, says that the consulting firm's most recent professional-development day focused on stress release. "The major topics," she says, "included the perils of getting by on five hours of sleep, whether it is possible to 'make up' time on the weekend, and how sleep deprivation speeds the aging process--not at all a concern to college students, but it rapidly becomes something you start to think about."

"Without question, sleep deprivation is a major issue for consultants," Moulton says. The problem becomes more acute once people have spouses and then, even more so, children for whom they feel responsible, she adds. "Many people in my firm are sending e-mails out from their laptops or their BlackBerrys at midnight, and then again while on the way to the airport at six o'clock in the morning."

When students look back on their earlier years, they see that they were programmed to be busy. When they look ahead, they see more of the same. And that's what I think about--a world that's almost constantly, if barely, awake--when I unfold the newest map included in National Geographic. It shows the Earth at night. The United States, as the map key says, is glowing with abandon. I find myself trying to zero-in on North Carolina. And I wonder whether Duke's campus at night will keep getting brighter and brighter, longer and longer.