The average person can survive more than three weeks without food, but only around ten days without sleep. (Gillin) Adolescents tend to participate in many activities such as exams, homework, and sports, which do not allow for a full night’s sleep. These activities disrupt students’ circadian sleep cycle, which is a series of mental, physical, and behavioral changes that follow a daily pattern. The word “circadian” means to occur in a twenty-four hour cycle. A disruption of one’s circadian sleep cycle can lead to exhaustion.
Recently, sleep deprivation has become more and more prevalent in the adolescent years, which is generally the period during and after puberty, from ages thirteen to eighteen. The recommended amount of sleep for teenagers is eight to ten hours per night in order for them to function best. A 2007 National Youth Risk Behavior Survey found that 68.9 percent of respondents reported insufficient sleep on a school night. (“Insufficient Sleep”)
A large scale study published in The Journal of Adolescent Health in 2010 showed that “a scant 8% of US high school students get the recommended amount of sleep. Some 23% get six hours of sleep on an average school night and 10% get only 5 hours.” (Garey et al.) The teenage years are very stressful, and meeting the minimum hours of sleep is crucial to managing stress and maintaining good health. Teenagers tend to fall asleep later in the night on average at 11 pm, which is due to a shift in their circadian rhythms. (Teens and Sleep) This means that it is harder for teenagers to fall asleep earlier. If teens fall asleep later, they will have a hard time catching up on their sleep, and their body’s clocks will be thrown off. This major shift in teenager’s sleep schedules results in students unable to function optimally, experiencing effects such as poor coordination, focus, attention, and more. This, in turn, affects students’ executive functioning, which is a set of skills that help people accomplish tasks effectively and efficiently. Executive function is controlled by a structure of the brain called the frontal lobe. The frontal lobe regulates activities such as managing time, paying attention, language and memory. A reduction in frontal lobe regulation due to sleep deprivation can reduce the effectiveness of the frontal lobe. For example, sleep deprived people have difficulties thinking of imaginative words or ideas, instead choosing repetitious words and phrases. (Harrison and Horne) Students who write essays while experiencing sleep deprivation may tend to repeat words and may be unable to think of new ideas nor engage their creativity.
Although they are just beginning their journey into adulthood, adolescents are increasingly exposed to many competitive environments, including the stress of school, allowing them to experience the effects of sleep deprivation too early in their life. (Rogers) The resulting sleep deprivation reflects an imbalance between the demands of education, sports, extra-curriculars, the rapid change in growth and development of these adolescents and the healthy sleep requirements that these teenagers need. Accordingly, teens require more sleep than adults, yet these demands often cause them to sleep less. (Sleep in Adolescents) Lack of sleep can lead to fatigue while performing demanding tasks, as well as decreased motivation, which can cause a decline in grades, poor mental and physical health, impaired motor control, and delayed reaction time.
To gauge the toll of lack of sleep on high school students, this author surveyed the high school student population of River Hill High School in Howard County, Maryland. This form of data collection included voluntary participation, and looked at the effects of sleep deprivation on student cognitive abilities. The survey questions were chosen from vetted surveys and other research. The subjects were evenly spread over freshmen, sophomores, juniors and seniors. My hypothesis stated that when students don’t get the required amount of sleep, their minds and bodies don’t function as well throughout the day. The survey results confirmed my hypothesis and further supports the theory that school, stress and homework takes a huge toll on the mental processes of teenagers.
Out of 109 students surveyed, 97% wish they could get more sleep, 84% recall feeling sleepy during the day, 83% believe that they miss out on fun and relaxation due to their homework load and extracurricular activities, 83% recall feeling tired in school, 73% have fallen asleep in class, and 59% have been late to school because they overslept. Only 5.5% of students get a healthy 8 hours of sleep per night. On a scale from one to ten (one being the least stressful and ten being the most), 78.9% of students chose their stress level to be a seven or higher. Furthermore, these high school students believe that getting good grades takes higher priority than getting enough sleep. When given the option to choose whether doing well in school was not important at all, somewhat important, important, or extremely important, a large majority of students (93/109) chose extremely important compared to only 29/109 students reporting that “getting enough sleep” was extremely important. Students do not place enough value on the importance of sleep, and as a result, receive a less than adequate amount of sleep on a daily basis. The research results show a strong correlation between the hours of sleep one receives and his or her grades, energy, mental health, and physical health. Student’s inability to meet the healthy sleep requirements reflect an imbalance between the demands of education, sports, extra-curriculars, and the rapid change in growth and development of these adolescents. Staying up all night in order to finish assignments or study for exams is not as important as getting a good night’s sleep.
Sleep deprivation impacts almost every high school student. Understanding the measures that affect sleep and how to avoid them are essential to leading a healthy life. Technology usage is an important factor affecting sleep quantity and quality. The blue light emitted from electronic devices tricks the brain into thinking it is daytime, causing the body to slow down melatonin production, which is needed for the body to feel sleepy. Technology usage also excites neurons and can deter the brain from slowing down the body and falling asleep. Early start times also contribute to student’s inability to get enough sleep.
One way to counteract this lack of adolescent sleep is for teenagers to take naps. Naps are a part of giving the body and brain a break and to restore energy. Fifteen minute naps can help by providing more energy to perform work, but a thirty or more minute nap is not the best solution because it will be harder to fall asleep at night, when the body is wired to rest.
Adults play a huge role in the lives of students, and at times, are able to affect teenager’s sleep. As teachers hand out one assignment after another, they should always stress the importance of sleep. Teachers should also create a workload for students that doesn’t require them to choose between sleep and work. Initiating conversations about health and sleep, both at home and at school, should be an important part of student’s education about what a healthy lifestyle entails. To prevent sleepy students in class, teachers, students and parents must understand the importance of sleep. Rest and good health is important for the growing and developing minds and bodies of adolescents as they grow into adults.
Garey, Juliann, et al. “Why Are Teenagers So Sleep-Deprived.” Child Mind Institute.
Gillin, J Christian. “How Long Can Humans Stay Awake?” Scientific American.
Harrison, Y, and J A Horne. “Sleep Deprivation Affects Speech.” Sleep., U.S. National Library
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“Insufficient Sleep among High School Students Associated with a Variety of Health-Risk
Behaviors.” National Sleep Foundation.
Rogers, Abby. “High School Kids Today Really Are Working Much Harder Than Earlier
Generations.” Business Insider, Business Insider, 10 Dec. 2011
“Sleep in Adolescents (13-18 Years).” Sleep in Adolescents :: Nationwide Children's Hospital,
“Teens and Sleep: Why You Need It and How to Get Enough.” National Center for
Biotechnology Information, Pulsus Group Inc, Jan. 2008.
Author: Janaki Patel - Janaki Patel is a senior in high school who aims to study engineering in college.
Advisor: Dr. Whitney Roban
© 2021 American Sleep Association.