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Study indicates global shift in sleep patterns after COVID-19 lockdown

University Professor Jeff Huang, Human-Computer Interaction Lab members analyze data from Sleep as Android app to identify trend of later wake-up times

A significant shift in sleep patterns was observed worldwide during the COVID-19 pandemic among a group of more than 100,000 people whose sleep data was analyzed in a study led by Jeff Huang, associate professor of computer science and key member of the Human-Computer Interaction Lab.

In most countries, people woke up later in 2020 during the pandemic” than in 2019 and “slept more hours,” according to the study. Comparing the time people woke up in April 2019 with the time they woke up in April 2020, Huang and his lab found that there was a shift in wake-up times such that most study participants woke up after seven in the morning, with some people waking up nearly a half hour later in the first two Tuesdays of April 2020 than in the first two Tuesdays of April 2019.

Analysis started soon after the COVID-19  lockdown began in March. Liyaan Maskati ’21, a member of Huang’s lab who worked on the study, hoped to use the data to identify if the lockdowns had a significant effect on sleep patterns, especially while people quarantined inside their homes. 

The researchers used Sleep as Android, a sleep-tracking app, to collect data from 100,000 anonymous users. The app contained over eight years of data and ensured all the data was collected in the same way, Maskati said. The data was filtered and mapped into graphs to determine average sleep patterns.

Sleep patterns differed for people during weekends as opposed to weekdays; participants both went to sleep later and woke up about an hour and a half later on weekends than they did on weekdays. 

About half of the study population slept the same total number of hours during the weekdays as they did before the pandemic, but the other half demonstrated changed sleep patterns, according to the study.

The results suggest that people’s sleep patterns can indicate how their lifestyles, daily habits and mental health may have shifted during the pandemic, Huang said. The most critical results from this study are the demographics and characteristics of people who are sleeping later, he added. When comparing median wake times across different countries, people in Western Europe tended to wake up much earlier than people in Eastern Europe. For example, people in countries such as Sweden were waking up nearly 90 minutes earlier compared to countries with stricter lockdowns, such as Italy. 

Michael Littman, professor of computer science, who was a reviewer for the study, believes that these results suggest that people are naturally going to sleep later given that they don’t need to commute to work anymore. He finds that sleep isn’t necessarily universal. “Some people sleep more, some people sleep less,” Littman said. But a key takeaway from the study is that it is possible to collect multinational data on sleeping patterns, he said. As such, he finds that future analysis of those who slept later could provide insight into the social and cultural implications of the lockdowns during the COVID-19 pandemic. By observing worldwide trends, scientists can start making predictions about the demographics and characteristics of the people who slept later or earlier during the lockdowns. 

Huang secured funding for the project from a Brown University Seed Award, National Science Foundation and the Brown Data Science Initiative. After completing the analysis, Huang posted a “Waking up around the world in 2020” graph on Reddit to gauge public interest in the project, which received over 800 upvotes. 

Beyond publishing these initial findings, the researchers plan to continue their analysis of sleep patterns, they wrote in the study: “There’s more to investigate.”



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