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Social Jet Lag: The Hidden Cause of Bad Grades

By now, it’s a familiar process: wake up begrudgingly early for classes, go to bed late, then sleep in on the weekends to desperately catch up on sleep debt. After a few grueling weeks of this hectic schedule, you constantly feel groggy and irritated, similar to jet lag.

There’s a word for this feeling: social jet lag.

Not only is it already a studied phenomenon, but the schedule instability it causes can take a toll on your grades.

Social jet lag (SJL) is when one’s chronotypical sleep schedule does not match up with one’s social schedule imposed by work and school. Chronotypes are natural variations in sleeping preferences, dictated by genetic differences in circadian rhythms. There is a spectrum of chronotypes, stretching from early morning larks to late night owls.

One pair of researchers measured SJL and its impact on academic performance in college students (Smarr and Schirmer). Smarr and colleagues utilized digital logins to track activity and when students were awake. They experimentally defined SJL as the difference between the timing of logins on class and non-class days.

College campuses are rife with social jet lag. Smarr and Schirmer found that 60% of students experience an average daily SJL of over half an hour. Worryingly, increased mismatch between one’s chronotypical schedule and class schedule is correlated with a lower GPA.

Academic difficulties are particularly prevalent for night owls, who wake up earlier for class days (socially-imposed schedule) than non-class days (chronotypical schedule). Owls do worse in academics than other chronotypes at all times of the day, even evening classes. They experience the most SJL because morning classes are more common than evening ones, forcing owls to adopt an unstable schedule.

Persistent deviation from one's circadian schedule causes internal desynchrony in biological processes. This causes continuous jet lag, making it challenging for students to achieve their best. Over half of college students are subject to the consequences of SJL, making it an urgent issue.

In response, educational institutions should offer a greater variety of classes and sections throughout the day, such as having one lecture in the morning and one in the evening for large classes. Catering to different chronotypes will allow students to maintain a stable schedule in agreement with their circadian rhythms, minimizing SJL and maximizing their academic performance. Institutions should also provide free counseling services to help students discover and understand their chronotype and then build a stable schedule that works with their internal rhythms. Though it would require funding and time to train counselors, it is crucial for students to understand their internal timing and have the flexibility to act upon it. By addressing the individual needs of chronotypes, all students can pursue academic excellence without being held back by unideal sleep schedules.


Works Cited

  1. Smarr, Benjamin L., and Aaron E. Schirmer. “3.4 Million Real-World Learning Management System Logins Reveal the Majority of Students Experience Social Jet Lag Correlated with Decreased Performance.” Scientific Reports, vol. 8, no. 1, Nature Publishing Group, Dec. 2018, pp. 1–8, doi:10.1038/s41598-018-23044-8.

Last Fact Checked on May 22nd, 2021.


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