If I get more than 4 hours of sleep on a school night, it is usually because I have accidentally fallen asleep on my books, my chromebook, or even worse – the midnight snack my mom brought me, which is now smeared across my forehead. Yet, as I struggle out of my daze, I know that I am not the only teen in America who is consistently and severely sleep deprived. In a detailed 2014 report, the American Academy of Pediatrics called the current problem of fatigued teens a public health epidemic. “I think high school is the real danger spot in terms of sleep deprivation,” says William Dement, MD, PhD. Dr. Dement is the founder of the Stanford Sleep Disorders Clinic which was the first of its kind in the world. He adds, “It is a huge problem. What it means is that nobody performs at the level they could perform.” Therefore, no one is performing at his or her optimal level at school, on the sports field, while driving, or even within the Sturm und Drang (thank you, English Honors) of daily home life.
I do not know any teen who gets nine hours of sleep per night on a school night. Yet, according to the National Sleep Foundation, teenagers need at least nine and a half hours of sleep per night. However, their 2014 Sleep in America Poll reported that less than half of American children get at least nine hours of sleep each night, and 58 percent of 15 to 17-year-olds regularly sleep fewer than seven hours each night. I am sure the reality is much, much worse and compounding that problem is that high schools seem to be starting earlier and earlier as teenagers fall deeper and deeper into chronic sleep deprivation.
“Middle and high school students should not have have to start school until 8:30 in the morning or later,” the American Academy of Pediatrics said in 2014. Their report made it clear that teens stay up later not because they do not want to go to sleep, but because they cannot. It explained that because of the delayed release of melatonin in the adolescent brain and a lack of “sleep drive” in response to fatigue, teens, in contrast with younger children and adults, do not feel sleepy until much later at night and have difficulty falling asleep, even when they are tired. Dr. Judith Owens, a pediatrician and lead author of the report, added that biology should not outweigh convenience. “Around the time that teenagers go into puberty, there are changes in what’s called the circadian rhythm. And that is the body’s time clock that regulates sleep and wake patterns,” she noted. “And so at around the beginning of adolescence, there is a natural delay in fall-asleep time and wake time such that the average teenager can’t fall asleep much before 11 o’clock. However, they also need between eight and a half and nine and a half hours of sleep per night, so if you do the math, they are biologically programmed to fall asleep at 11 and wake at around 8am. And that’s a time when they’re already in first period class.” Dr. Owen also adds that most teenagers often try to “catch up” on their sleep over the weekend, making matters worse as “…these kids are essentially in a permanent state of jet lag.” Not surprisingly, therefore, the American Academy of Pediatrics is focusing primarily on school start times.
Some nights, admittedly, I don’t sleep at all. I often get my brother late to school, because I am usually working through the early morning hours trying to get all my homework and projects done before we leave. My brother says our mom drives our Honda Odyssey like a Bugatti Veyron (whatever that is) as she somehow evades crashing into other cars as she screeches onto the school parking lot. Once there, I don’t care what the other students think. I position my 45 pound backpack on my long suffering spine as I dash like a rabid gazelle to my first period class…and usually get there on time. My brother, on the other hand, is too embarrassed to run and walks late to his class, but at least he looks suave when he gets there (or so he thinks). The entire time, we are both wishing that we had had just a few more hours of sleep….“Although many changes over the course of adolescence can affect the quality and quantity of sleep, one of the most salient and, arguably, most malleable is that of school start times,” the AAP states. In their study, a handful of districts delayed their start times by one hour. However, students did not shift their bedtimes later, resulting in a net gain of one extra hour of sleep on school nights. Those children arrived at school more rested and, according to the report, experienced “less daytime sleepiness, less tardiness, fewer attention and concentration difficulties, and better academic performance compared with middle school students at earlier-starting schools.”
However, the issue, I believe, is more than just melatonin and very early school days. Teenagers are having to push themselves further in today’s overscheduled world, and this means pushing themselves harder to make homework and project deadlines after long hours of team practices and well past their fatigue limits. I am very fortunate to attend a high school that offers innumerable opportunities in terms of athletics, academic courses, community service opportunities, and competitions in a variety of events. I am also part of many organizations such as the Girl Scouts. Cookie season just ended and I wonder how I ever managed to juggle all my homework, athletic events, academic competitions, community service hours AND also sell Girl Scout cookies in my neighborhood (10 years in a row) and do cookie booths on the weekends. The Girl Scouts promote not only leadership and business sense, but also a healthy lifestyle. I participated in our cookie season for as long as I could – until I came close to my goals – and then I had to stop, because doing my best is all I can do. I was only getting about 2 hours of sleep a night and that is not enough for any human being to function.
Like most ambitious teenagers, I want to participate in every single event and seize every opportunity given to me, but at what cost? As the National Sleep Foundation emphasized, chronic sleep loss contributes to higher rates of depression and obesity. Long-term deprivation has also been shown to be a factor in lower test scores, decreased attention span, tardiness, concentration, and overall academic achievement. As we fight to get to the finish line of high school “successfully”, perhaps we need to also concentrate on getting there healthfully as well.
Adolescent Sleep Working Group, “School Start Times for Adolescents.” Committee on Adolescence, Council on School Health. Pediatrics 2014; 134:642. https://www.uptodate.com/contents/guidelines-for-adolescent-prevention (Accessed March 19, 2018).
Carskadon, Mary, Thomas Roth, et al. “Adolescent Sleep Needs and Patterns: Research Report and Resource Guide.” National Sleep Foundation, Washington, D.C., 2000.
Ozer EM, Park J, Paul T, et al. “America’s Adolescents: Are They Healthy?”, 2003 Edition Revised and Updated. National Adolescent Health Information Center. Division of Adolescent Medicine, Department of Pediatrics and Institute for Health Policy Studies, University of California School of Medicine, San Francisco, 2003. http://www.nihcm.org/pdf/AA2003.pdf (Accessed on March 20, 2018).
Richter, Ruthann. “Among Teens, Sleep Deprivation An Epidemic.” med.standford.edu.html, October 29, 2015. https://med.stanford.edu/news/all-news/2015/10/among-teens-sleep-deprivation-an-epidemic.html (Accessed on March 20, 2018).
Richter, Ruthann. “From A to ZZZs: The Trouble with Teen Sleep.” Pediatrics, Research, and Innovation. October 29, 2015. https://healthier.stanfordchildrens.org/en/zzzzs-trouble-teen-sleep/ (Accessed on March 20, 2018).