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Studying sleep deprivation

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Posted: Thursday, March 13, 2008 12:00 am

The baggy-eyed guy who strolls into your 8 a.m. class late might be sleeping more than you think.

That may be the case, according to sociology professors John Robinson and Steve Martin, who published research yesterday saying that most Americans - and most college students - sleep more than they think.

Robinson spoke to The Diamondback yesterday about how students perceive their sleep.

DIAMONDBACK: What's your study about?

John Robinson: How people spend time. This was all people age 18 to 64, the working-age population. ... You take a cross section of people. The data is now collected by the Census Bureau. I did the studies from 1965 to 2000, the Census Bureau has done the studies since then, and we're comparing our results to the Census Bureau. ... They identify people absolutely at random. The last I looked, we have about 37,000 people sampled. We interpret the results.

DBK: What's the brief gist of your results?

Robinson: Well, the main point is that Americans are not sleeping less than they used to. In a matter a fact, until the latest survey that we did, sleeping hours were just right on almost the eight-hour figure.

DBK: And what is your method?

Robinson: Instead of asking people how many hours of sleep they get a night, we asked people, 'What did you do yesterday?' This is more of a long-term recollection of what they did yesterday, so it's not asking people how much they slept. ... The people tell us in their own words what they were doing yesterday. ... The whole idea is that people tell us what they are doing. We don't estimate, because when you estimate, you have a certain picture in your mind about how you want to present yourself.

DBK: Is this also a class?

Robinson: Yeah, Sociology 450. [The class is separate from the study, but it is similar.] Students are different from people.

DBK: So in the study, do participants go through every detail of their day?

Robinson: That's what they're supposed to do. We get about 20 activities per day.

DBK: How accurate is this method?

Robinson: Well, it's quite reliable. We ask people to keep beepers, and we have people observe. In my class here I have students follow people around for a day, shadow somebody, and then they call them the next day and ask them what they were doing. And some people are not very accurate, but, in general, the numbers work out to be about the same. The numbers are extremely reliable from year to year.

DBK: Have you noticed that adults sleep more than college-aged kids?

Robinson: Well, employment is the thing. If people are employed they tend to sleep less. ... You have work obligations that you have to take care of - we found that that is the major correlation.

DBK: What about students? Do you count coursework?

Robinson: Professors expect either two to three hours of work outside of course time; it's more like a one-to-one ratio (11 hours a week, 11 hours in class). We don't have you people slaving as much as we think you do.

DBK: Do college students sleep more than they claim?

Robinson: Yes, in general, that's one of the major differences. Students estimate that they sleep less than eight hours a night, but sometimes it goes into eight-and-a-half, nine hours on average ... when they keep a weekly diary.

DBK: What is the average amount of sleep a college student gets?

Robinson: I think it's over 60 hours a week.

DBK: How long do adults sleep?

Robinson: Their average is about eight hours a day.

DBK: Has sleeping gone up during the past couple of years?

Robinson: That's what we found. It's surprising - about three hours a week. At first I was skeptical, but when I saw the [University of Toronto] study around the same time period ... [it] looks like it is a pretty stable trend.

DBK: After sleeping, what is the most common thing people do?

Robinson: Well, work. And then TV - people watch about 20 hours a week. Fifty-nine hours of sleep. Twenty-three hours of work and about 23 hours of family care. That's across everybody 18 to 64. We're looking at the working-age population.

DBK: Why do you think people believe they sleep less than they actually do?

Robinson: Because it says you're busy. If you're busy, you're important.

DBK: Is it a contest?

Robinson: Well, I don't know about that, but I think it's a way of saying, 'I'm important. I don't have any time.'

Small parts of Robinson's interview have been chronologically reorganized.

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