How I Got a Tech-Whiz to Go to Sleep

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Little did the young man sitting next to me on the airplane know what he was getting into. Actually, neither did I.

I watched him speed through his cell phone apps to get connected to United. I asked him if he could help me. Within seconds he had me connected and we both beamed.

As we talked, one topic led to another. He was getting his Masters degree in technology at a prestigious university and was flying out of Seattle, where he had interviewed for a tech job and was going back to his studies and then to more interviews. A retired professor, I asked him questions about his classes and the kind of job he hoped for. Like many in their mid-20s, he wanted it to contribute to the social good, to community well-being. (Ok, I admit, the latter was my term).

He then asked what I was working on and I said, “Oh, well-being and sleep education.”

“Really?” he replied, his face puzzled. “What’s the big deal about sleep? I never get any,” he chuckled.

I told him about the recent research on sleep deprivation and how important adequate sleep is for his brain to stay alert and healthy. Interested, he said that he wasn’t getting much.

I told him I’d been writing about it. “In my last Medium piece, I explored the effects of social norms on one’s beliefs and practices about sleep. Could I explore this with you?” I asked him. He was willing, even eager.

“Can you tell me about your social network, your community and how they sleep and how they affect your sleep?”

“Easy. None of us sleep much,” he replied. He described how they all stayed up late studying. They texted each other at all hours of the night, screens on and blazing. “Our professors expect us to apply for jobs outside our schoolwork, and they alert us to multiple openings. Our family and friends expect attention too.”

“So how many hours do you usually get?” I asked.

He replied, “If I’m lucky? Four. Given what you’ve said, that’s not enough — for any of us.”

I agreed and explained that it would be hard for him to increase his sleep on his own. Social norms are about what’s approved and celebrated in your reference group, what’s sanctioned, or just what’s taken for granted as normal. Public health educators are taking social norms seriously.

“What would happen if you said to your friends that you got a good night’s sleep, a full eight hours?” I asked.

“I wouldn’t say it, as they’d think I was crazy,” he said.

“And you’re reinforced for being awake at three in the morning?”

“Absolutely,” he replied.

Trumpets blare in my mind. He is the sleep advocate’s perfect challenge: smart, likable, caring of others. We want him to flourish. How do I engage with him knowing that, along with a lack of information, social norms might be holding his sleep deprivation in place? These norms make it more difficult for him to act differently, to get more sleep, even if he recognizes that he is not getting enough sleep.

As an individual in a network of sleepless friends and colleagues, he has to engage with them in a deliberative process with accurate information to change both his and their beliefs and behavior. They all (or most of them) have to see that sleep is critical to their own and their community’s well-being.

I took a stab and asked, “Will you do an experiment for me when you get back?”

“Sure,” he said.

“Show your study partners neuroscientist and sleep guru Matthew Walker’s twenty-minute Ted Talk “Sleep Is Your Superpower” and talk about it, especially the memory part since you are heading into end-of-term exams soon. And take a look at Alexey Guzey’s criticism of Walker’s book. Guzey argues that some of Walker’s claims are not substantiated, overblown. But both agree with The National Sleep Foundation’s recommendation that you need 7–9 hours. Assuming you and your colleagues all agree that you need more sleep, ask them to join in a pact to get more of it. Make it competitive if you wish. Since you are all interested in technology, use Sleep Cycle to track your sleep.

He wrote the information down and reaffirmed his commitment to try the experiment with his friends.

Then he put his phone and computer away, pushed his seat back and slept until we landed.

In his rush to get to his next flight, I didn’t get his contact information. I’ve been thinking a lot about our interaction. Is sleep deprivation a social norm? If so, how can we help the sleep deprived identify their reference group and then how do we invite them into a dialogue without increasing their anxiety? I welcome comments from those of you who are advocating for adequate sleep.

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