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Tired Teens: the adverse effects of sleep deprivation on high school students

By Holly Heinemann

Originally Published on August 6th, 2018

It’s 8:20 on a Thursday morning in April. I am looking across my classroom of 12th graders, at least half of whom are barely able to keep their eyes open. A blond girl, straight A’s, soccer player, leans her head on her hand, propped up by her elbow. Two boys don’t even feign alertness, their heads down on their desks, eyes closed. “Okay, how many of you went to bed before midnight last night?” I ask. About one-third of the class raise their hands. “Abby (not her real name), what time did you go to bed?” I query the blond soccer player.

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“About 2:00 a.m.,” she yawns. I know there was not a soccer game the night before. I also know, from conversations with my fellow teachers, that the homework loads this week has been light.

“Why’d you stay up so late?” (a pause while Abby considers this question)

“On her phone,” someone else mutters. The tired girl doesn’t deny it. I glance at the two boys dozing. Cell phones? Video games?  Netflix?  Not bothering to ask, I sigh and attempt to move on with our discussion of Hamlet.

In 2014, the American Academy of Pediatrics called the problem of sleep deprivation among adolescents a public health epidemic.  According to Stanford Medical News Center, experts recommend that teens get 8-10 hours of sleep per night (the same amount recommended for school-age children), yet 87% of high school students are sleeping much less. Over a period of days and weeks, this deprivation results in a “sleep debt”—a feeling of chronic exhaustion. And such exhaustion has consequences for young people.

Mary Carskadon, Ph.D. (professor of psychiatry and human behavior at Brown University and nationally recognized expert on teen sleep) explains that lack of sleep impacts learning and memory, as well as mood and emotion (which are often less stable during the adolescent years). She adds that teens who are chronically sleep deprived are more likely to engage in high-risk behaviors such as substance abuse.

In addition, a 2010 study appearing in the journal Sleep determined that children who went to bed after midnight had increased feelings of depression and thoughts of suicide. “The link between sleep deprivation and suicidal thoughts remains strong, independent of whether the teen is depressed or has drug or alcohol issues.” (Richter).

What can parents do to help their teenagers avoid chronic exhaustion?

1)  Limit the use of screens at least one hour prior to bedtime. The lit screens actually send a message to your brain, confusing your natural circadian clock. In other words, your confused brain thinks it’s not night time (Richter). Many kids watch movies or play video games until it’s time for bed. Instead, have them turn-off screens and read a book (a paper one, with pages that turn) in bed or listen to soothing music until it’s time for lights out.

2) This includes cell phones. Many teens bring their cell phones into bed with them, connecting through social media long after their parents think they’ve gone to sleep. One idea is for parents to collect their teen’s phone and keep it in the parents’ room during the night.

3) Have students begin doing homework earlier in the day/evening, when possible. Everyone has an occasional event (a late sports game, an evening performance, a club meeting) that means getting a late start on assignments, but as a rule, insist that your teen begin homework early enough that she/he will finish in time to get sufficient sleep.

4) Promote good sleep habits. This means avoiding caffeine in the afternoons and evenings, going to bed and getting up at the same time every day, and being exposed to sunlight soon after waking up in the morning (circadian clock again—natural daylight keeps the brain from getting confused!)

5) Adults—this all applies to you, too! It’s NOT just teens who are suffering from sleep deprivation! According to Patrick Finan, Ph.D.  (a sleep researcher for Johns Hopkins University), during the past month 1 in 25 adults have fallen asleep while driving. If that doesn’t scare you, consider that people who are sleep deprived have a 33% increased risk for dementia, as well as a higher risk for depression, irritability, and anxiety.

Concerned about your waistline? Lack of sleep increases the production of the hunger hormone called ghrelin while lowering the appetite-control hormone leptin. People who get less than five hours a sleep per night have a 50% increased likelihood of obesity (Finan).

Think of long-term health consequences. Sleep deprivation results in a 36% increased risk of colorectal cancer, triples the likelihood of type 2 diabetes and increases high blood pressure.

And when you’re lacking sleep, you’re much more likely to catch a cold (Finan).

Even when we know all this, we often ignore it. Why? Because there’s always something more important to think about than sleep. We see sleep as optional, exhaustion as an inescapable consequence of our busy, important lives. (Please note:  I realize that parents of newborns and people with chronic insomnia are not sleep deprived by choice.  You have my sympathy and support as you walk that road.)

For both adults and teens, this is really an issue of surrender. In order to sleep, we have to give up control, accept the limits of our own bodies, and embrace the reality that we were designed to spend one-third of our lives in a state of rest. Sleep is a gift; we do well to embrace it.

Sources:

Finan, Patrick, Ph. D.  “Sleep Deprivation Effects” (infographic). Johns Hopkins University.  www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/healthy-sleep/health-risks/the-effects-of-sleep-deprivation. Web.  Accessed July 24, 2018.

Richter, Ruth.  “Among Teens, Sleep Deprivation an Epidemic.”  October 2015.  Stanford Medicine News Center.  http//med.stanford.edu/news/all-news/2015/10/among-teens-sleep-deprivation-an-epidemic.  Wed.  Accessed July 24, 2018

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Holly Heinemann teaches writing, grammar, and literature to 8th-12th graders at New Life Christian Academy.  She lives in Burtchville where she loves spending time at the beach with her husband and son.  
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