Everyone Knows Teens Lack Sleep, but Why?

Heads on desks, eyelids drooping–these are common sights in any classroom. But why are students so sleepy? And is there anything a student can do about it?

By Eli Oyler and Caden Lefler

According to a Pine Needle survey, 75 percent of Central High School students feel they don’t get enough sleep. The results suggest sleeplessness is a wide problem, but what causes this sleep deprivation?

High schoolers like to blame their lack of sleep on the extensive amounts of homework they receive in classes. However, teachers reassure students each year that large amounts of homework are not assigned and any work that is can be finished in a short period of time. The exception can be found when students take AP classes or dual enroll. Classes like AP Chemistry and college level calculus assign large amounts of homework to help reinforce the difficult coursework their class covers. However, over 65% of students reported not taking an AP class or dual enrollment. So, what is really causing this lack of sleep that plagues Central High School?

Over 70% of students report averaging 5-8 hours of sleep per night. This average, even if each student maxed out at the 8 hours per night, is still an hour under the amount of sleep recommended for adolescents. “From the time they hit puberty until the age of 22, adolescents need about 9 hours of sleep a night to function optimally — to be physically, mentally and cognitively healthy,” writes Juliann Garey from the Child Mind Institute. We’ve all heard it a hundred times, sleep is important, but why is it so? University of Chicago student Gabriel Levine said in the beginning of his high school career, “It was cool to do really well on as little sleep as possible.” In his later high school years he discovered that he could do better in school by getting more sleep rather than studying all night. “Cognitive functioning is just better with sleep and without it, you sacrifice that,” he said. Sleep is important, yet so unattainable.

“Students need to turn their phones off at night, notifications will destroy a healthy routine,” said Joey Lore.

Some of the causes of this adolescent sleep deprivation are genetic in nature, but others are self- inflicted. One pressing issue is the hormonal time shift experienced by teenagers. Hormones shift the body clocks of teenagers about two hours, making them sleepier later in the day. This causes them to drag during the day while still going to bed much later. Another large contributor to sleep deprivation is caused solely by the teenagers themselves–the use of screen-based devices near bedtime negatively affects sleep. “Teens who put down their smartphones an hour before bed gain an extra 21 minutes sleep a night,” according to the Better Health Channel.

However, the biggest cause of sleep deprivation is found in student’s extra-curricular activities.  Nanci Yuan, MD, director of the Stanford Children Health Sleep Center, believes this to be true: “With academic demands and extracurricular activities, the kids are going non-stop until they fall asleep exhausted at night. They say they are tired, but they don’t realize they are actually sleep-deprived. And if you ask kids to remove an activity, they would rather not. They would rather give up sleep than an activity.”

Due to the combined pressure of academics and activities, students have a lot to accomplish within a day and this greatly affects their sleep. According to our survey of 256 Central High school Students, 70% of students report getting under the doctor recommended amount of sleep. Of those surveyed, 60% also said they were involved in extracurricular activities. This data reinforces the Yuan’s ideas about extracurricular activities.

Joey Lore, an English teacher at Central High School who studied the brain extensively in graduate school, has noticed the effects of tiredness in his classes. “Students come to school during 1st block with a lack of focus and concentration,” he said. “They aren’t awake until 2nd block.” Anatomy and Physiology teacher Heather Linde agrees with Lore’s assessment. “It’s really hard for students to focus and their productivity is not 100%,” she said.

This lack of sleep greatly affects student’s performance in and out of the classroom. So how do we fix it? “Students need to turn their phones off at night, notifications will destroy a healthy routine,” said Lore. Pediatrician Dr. Max Van Gilder agrees with the problems phones cause. Any device with an electronic screen creates a glow at a frequency which sends “a signal to the brain which suppresses the production of melatonin and keeps kids from feeling tired.” Dr. Alison Baker says that consistency is a very important part in adolescents getting sleep. If teens can go to sleep around that same time each night and awake at around the same time each morning, averaging close to the same amount of sleep each night, sleep deprivation will be greatly decreased.

Every day, students claim to be extremely tired and they blame it all on their mounds of homework. This, however, is not the truth. Surveys and clinicians agree that adolescents all over the country are falsely claiming their sleep deprivation to be simply tiredness. The truth is that students are sleep deprived and homework is not the only culprit. It may seem at times that teachers, activities, and college applications are teaming up to create this deprivation in all students, but there is light at the end of the tunnel. Adolescent sleep can be improved if they sacrifice some screen time and attempt to create a more consistent sleep schedule. Sleep is important in all of our lives and it is very important for us to understand the causes and possible solutions.

Photo: So so sleepy by Clemson University Library on Flickr