Sleep deprivation is also a social justice issue

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In Intro Psych, we often approach sleep deprivation as an issue faced by individuals with solutions directed at individuals. A compelling article in Science (Pérez Ortega, 2021) argues that we should also consider sleep deprivation in the context of social justice. I’ll skip over how important sleep is. Instructors of Intro Psych, on the whole, probably have a pretty good grasp of the research on sleep deprivation and its effects.

After covering the importance of sleep, share these data with your students: A 2015 study in the United States found that, 43.4% of Blacks, 37.1% of Chinese Americans, 31.5% of Hispanics, and 19.3% of Whites reported sleeping an average of less than six hours per night.

Ask students to consider what environmental, socioeconomic, and social factors may contribute to that disparity.  

Here are some of the factors identified by researchers in the Science article:

  • Black and Hispanic workers are more likely to work nights. Those who work the night shift are less likely to get enough sleep.
  • Acculturation stress for immigrants contributes to sleep loss.
  • The stress of being the target of—or fear of being the target of—prejudice and discrimination is associated with greater insomnia.
  •  “[P]eople of color tend to reside in brighter areas, where they are exposed to approximately twice as much ambient light at night as white people” (Pérez Ortega, 2021, p. 553).
  • “Black, Hispanic, and Asian people in the United States are also exposed to disproportionately high levels of particulate air pollution”(Pérez Ortega, 2021, p. 553). Air pollution affects how well we breathe. The more difficult it is to breathe, the more difficult it is to sleep.
  • Black Americans are more likely to live in neighborhoods where nighttime noise is common.

Conclude the discussion by asking students what we can do as society members to mitigate these environmental and social factors.

As an example, there is a movement to reduce city light pollution (Payne, 2021). While much of the impetus for the movement is about energy conservation, changing city lights to softer, less intense lights should make urban sleeping a little easier, too.

“For the first time, the Department of Health and Human Services earlier this year included improving sleep as one of the main disease prevention goals for the next decade. [Marishka Brown, director of the National Center on Sleep Disorder Research at the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, who chaired the working group that came up with sleep objectives for the project, called Healthy People 2030, is elated that improving sleep is now a national health priority. She is disappointed, however, that tackling sleep disparities wasn’t ultimately included, despite all the evidence she and others presented to decision-makers” (Pérez Ortega, 2021, p. 555). Here is the Healthy People 2030 section on sleep, for your reference.




Payne, E. (2021, September 27). Dark skies ordinance to dim Pittsburgh’s light pollution. Carnegie Mellon University.

Pérez Ortega, R. (2021). Divided we sleep. Science, 374(6567), 552–555.



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About the Author
Sue Frantz has taught psychology since 1992. She has served on several APA boards and committees, and was proud to serve the members of the Society for the Teaching of Psychology as their 2018 president. In 2013, she was the inaugural recipient of the APA award for Excellence in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning at a Two-Year College or Campus. She received in 2016 the highest award for the teaching of psychology--the Charles L. Brewer Distinguished Teaching of Psychology Award. She presents nationally and internationally on the topics of educational technology and the pedagogy of psychology. She is co-author with Doug Bernstein and Steve Chew of Teaching Psychology: A Step-by-Step Guide, 3rd ed. and is co-author with Charles Stangor on Introduction to Psychology, 4.0.