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Why Remote Learning Benefits Night Owls

In a society that favours early birds, here’s why remote learning during the pandemic is giving night owls a bit of a break. Plus, some tips on getting zzzs during uncertain times.

Note: While this post talks about the benefits of the pandemic for some people’s natural sleep patterns, The Chang School of Continuing Education recognizes that the Covid-19 pandemic has negatively affected many aspects of peoples’ lives and wellbeing.

Like the saying goes, “the early bird catches the worm,” but what if you’re more of a night owl? Does that mean you miss out by not being able to get up at the crack of dawn and be productive? With school and work traditionally centred around the early birds of the world, one of the positive things about the pandemic is that with remote learning and working from home, night owls are finally getting a bit of a break.

By not physically having to be somewhere for 9 a.m., night owls are able to more closely follow their circadian rhythms by going to bed later and getting up later, as studying remotely only requires a short commute from bed to desk rather than the traditional commuting times that most people do on a daily basis. (A 2019 Forum Research poll suggests that commute times in Toronto are, on average, 42 minutes each way.)

Turns out there’s scientific evidence behind early birds and night owls, as Associate Professor and Director of the Sleep and Depression Laboratory at Ryerson University, Colleen Carney, who teaches and researches the topic of sleep, points out. “Everyone has a genetic predisposition towards when they get sleepy and when they get up,” she said. “Being a night owl or an early bird isn’t a preference. It’s genetic.”

Whether or not you’re a night owl is also affected by puberty with some first-year undergrad students at 17 having hormonal levels that cause them to be an “extreme night owl”, Colleen added.

Colleen has first-hand experience with this teaching young adults about sleep in her course CPSY 682 – Sleep at The Chang School of Continuing Education. The course is one of the electives in the Mental Health and Addictions certificate offered at The Chang School.

An early bird herself but sympathetic to the biological clocks of night owls, Colleen feels for students attending her 8 a.m. class, which before it went fully online due to Covid, was a real struggle for some students to physically be present. “Digital learning is really helpful because they (students) can pick when they take courses,” she said. “I encourage students that are extreme night owls to pick online classes that are later in the day because if they’re not a morning person, they won’t be alert if they sign up for a morning class.”

In addition to her personal observations, Colleen has also recently analyzed data from students using the web-based DOZe app, which was inspired by a diary app originally created by Colleen and The Chang School and is now available to anyone that wishes to use it online. The app helps users learn about their sleep patterns and make changes to improve their sleep.

Colleen recently analyzed the data from young adults using the app for four months before and four months during the pandemic, and the results showed night owls are better off now than before. Compared with pre-pandemic, students using the DOZe app during the pandemic were sleeping longer and their instances of depression and anxiety were less. “That’s a good reason to follow your clock,” said Colleen.

Body clock aside, here are some other tips to help students to get their zzzs during the pandemic as they transition or continue with online learning in the fall.

Get Your Rays

During Covid, especially in the early stages when people were locked down, people stayed indoors too much. While this was out of necessity to curb the spread of the virus, people were robbed of natural light. As Colleen pointed out, “Sunlight is important for our sleep. Blue light is important during the day. We always hear about it being bad,” she said, in reference to blue light emitted from mobile phones, which may increase the risk of macular degeneration.

Move Your Body

While gyms and exercise studios have recently opened up during Stage 3 in Ontario, Colleen said it’s important to incorporate your exercise routine outdoors if you’re able to so you can get that burst of light. This is especially important if you’re stuck behind a computer screen during the day. Exercise is also important for getting a good night’s sleep, as it has been shown to reduce anxiety and depression, which can disturb sleep.

Combat Isolation and Loneliness

Being inside for more time than normal is especially hard for people who live alone as it increases feelings of isolation and loneliness. “It’s hard to sleep when your mood is low,” said Colleen.

To help students with these feelings, Colleen said she set up a Zoom call with her graduate students to play games online with each other, helping them to stay connected. Students in her online course also have access to a virtual coffee shop where they can network with one another and reach out to their instructor.

Create a Sleep Diary

As mentioned above, the DOZe app helps users make changes and set goals for themselves around sleep so they’re able to get better quality sleep and more of it. Self management tools like this put people in control of their sleep and empower them to make small changes to improve it.

Now that’s something we can all sleep on.