All-nighters, reading from a computer screen bad for student health—and GPAs

It's recommended that students take 20-minute breaks from their laptop screens.

It’s 3 a.m. on a Monday at the University of Maryland’s McKeldin Library. The second floor is still full of students furiously typing on 15-inch Macbooks, cranking out papers with deadlines mere hours away.

For many college students, all-nighters are an all-too-familiar reality, despite studies that have suggested a correlation between all-nighters and lower grade point averages (GPAs).

The scene at the university’s largest library came as no surprise to junior elementary education major Kayla Fitzgerald, and not just because finals week was just around the corner.

“There’s always a good amount of people here no matter what time it is,” said Fitzgerald on one of her breaks from her paper on child language development and reading acquisition, due at 2 p.m. that afternoon. “Around 3 a.m. is when most people start to leave, though.”

When asked if she thought she would be getting any sleep that night, Fitzgerald sighed.

“I think I’m going to bed around 8 a.m.,” she said, admitting that she was supposed to go to work then but would probably be calling in sick. “I just don’t think I can go without sleep.”

The National Sleep Foundation would probably agree, given its recommendation that adults get somewhere from seven to nine hours of sleep a night.

However, the combination of classes, term papers, and social obligations often means college students get far less than the recommendation. And hours in front of a laptop screen, according to optometrists, can have long-term effects on a student’s eyesight.

“I always try to get at least a little bit of sleep so I can try to get through most of the next day,” said Nick Pozoulakis, a sophomore electrical engineering and physics major who spent his time at McKeldin writing an essay for his 11 a.m. ethics class. “I don’t like to throw off my sleeping habits in general, but that’s why we have weekends.”

Pozoulakis, whose computer science minor found him taking 21 credits during the fall semester, said even with his attempts at time management, sometimes staying up until 5 a.m. seems like the only option.

While many students may feel forced into staying up late enough to see the sun rise over campus, studies suggest doing so could be detrimental to their grades.

A 2007 study done at St. Lawrence University in Canton, N.Y., examined the sleeping habits and final grades of 111 students, looking for a correlation between the two. Researchers found two-thirds of the students studied said they had pulled at least one all-nighter that semester, and those students who did so on a regular basis had lower GPAs.

“The day after not having slept was awful,” said Fitzgerald, who said her only official all-nighter was to write a paper for her German class last year. “I didn’t even end up doing very well on the paper.”

In addition to its possible effects on grades, not getting a sufficient amount of sleep has palpable consequences for students’ health. Sleep deprivation leads to weight gain, difficulty concentrating and a lowered immune system, according to a study done by sleep researchers at the University of Chicago.

“I get sick when I only get like four hours of sleep a night for two weeks straight,” said Pozoulakis, barely looking up from the laptop housing his partially-written assignment. “Sometimes I need to skip a day of class and sleep because I can’t get out of bed.”

The amount of time students spend in front of their laptops also has adverse effects on their health, at least for their eyes.

According to the American Optometric Association, more than two hours of time looking at an electronic display screen can lead to Computer Vision Syndrome. Symptoms include eye strain, fatigue and headaches, making that assignment even more difficult to complete.

The association recommends taking small breaks as often as every 20 minutes, as well as making sure to remain an appropriate distance from the computer screen and to blink often enough to avoid dry eye.

Though Pozoulakis and Fitzgerald said both their all-nighters were one-time events, some students find themselves relying on the strategy much more often.

“If I had to guess, I stay up all night once every two weeks,” said junior history and government and politics major Kevin LaCherra. “Maybe it’s even more than that around finals.”

LaCherra admitted his 18-credit semester was part of the reason his work built up, leaving him with eight hours to research and write his 10-page government final paper. Rather than stressed, he seemed calm about the night ahead of him.

“I’m not even tired yet,” he said. “I’ll probably drink some soda later, but that’s about it.”

Some students, on the other hand, turn to illegally obtained attention deficit hyperactivity disorder medication in order to make it through the night while being as productive as possible.

“I feel like it’s not really fair,” said Pozoulakis. “I only know a few people who use it, but it’s probably more common than I think.

According to a University of Pennsylvania study, one in four college students have used Adderall as a study drug despite the possibility of legal consequences. In Maryland, possession of Adderall without a prescription can lead to a $25,000 fine and up to four years in jail.

With only half of his paper written, Pozoulakis decided to call it a night. As he loads his backpack with his laptop charger and multiple college-ruled notebooks, he sighs.

“It’s a bizarre experience going to sleep when the sky starts getting light again,” he said. “You know, the sun comes up surprisingly fast.”

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eCampus News Staff