How many hours of sleep did you get last night? Hopefully, it was between seven and ten hours. Unfortunately, many of us are nowhere near this sleep benchmark. With more and more activities and stimuli to fill our every waking hour, our waking hours are becoming longer and longer. From Facebook to Snapchat, piles of paperwork to hours of homework, there is always something to grab our attention and keep us occupied. This has resulted in later bedtimes and earlier mornings. Although we are in a wonderful digital age of constant learning and information exchange, the resulting lack of sleep has detrimental effects, particularly in adolescence.
A study done by University of Utah in 2014 showed that over 90% of high school students in the US were chronically sleep deprived, meaning they were getting under the recommended nine hours of sleep per night. In comparison, recently the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that approximately 34% of adults get less than the recommended seven hours of sleep per night- making them chronically sleep deprived. Ninety percent versus 34% is an incomprehensible difference; why, at the point in life when learning and development is most crucial, are humans getting the least amount of sleep? The combination of technology, early school start times, and biology of the adolescent body is to blame.
Teens are growing up in an age of technology. Surrounded by smartphones, television, and computers, it’s often hard to escape from the constant glow of the screen. Unfortunately, it is this glow of the screen that tends to keeps teens up later. Electronic screens emit a particular blue light. When this frequency of light hits receptors in the eye, a signal is sent to the brain. This signal suppresses the production of melatonin. Melatonin is the chemical which causes humans to feel tired, so having this suppressed tricks the brain into thinking it’s not tired. As we stay up late to finish an assignment, browse facebook, or work on a class project, we are ensuring that our bedtime will be later simply because we are completing the task on a laptop, computer, or phone. Adolescents are already often low on melatonin, so suppressing the chemical even more is proving to have quite the negative effect on their sleep times.
Most teens spend the majority of their time in school. Uncoincidentally, school is one of the main reason teens are so sleep deprived. A study done by National Center for Education Statistics through the U.S. Department of Education in 2011-12 found that over 86% of United States high schools start before 8:30 am. While this schedule has many advantages- allowing time for after school sports, jobs, and other activities- it’s hurting the students. The ever-shrinking acceptance rates of colleges places students under immense pressure to boost their resume with every possible extracurricular, volunteer opportunity, and Advanced Placement class. After school, teens will go to their ever-growing list of extracurriculars and sports, then they may get home late in the evening to work on hours upon hours of homework. The collective pressure leads many teens to stay up the extra few hours to finish an assignment and study extra for a test. Then, after a late night they must wake up the crack of dawn for school. This cycle often repeats itself day after day, and soon teens are stuck the cycle of sleep deprivation.
The average teen’s schedule is setting them up for failure. Biologically, teens aren’t meant to have such early mornings. According to the Sleep Center at UCLA, during puberty the body’s circadian rhythms (natural wake and sleep cycle) shifts. During childhood, the body naturally falls asleep around eight to nine pm. As the person enters puberty, enter a “sleep phase delay” (Sleep Center at UCLA). This causes the body to naturally fall asleep a few hours later- between 10 and 11 pm. The National Sleep Foundation suggests teenages need between eight to ten hours of sleep to function well. This means, biologically, teens should be sleeping from about 10:30 pm to 7:30 am. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the average american high school starts at 7:59 am, making it impossible for students at these schools to follow their biologically prefered sleep schedule and make it to school on time. This impossible schedule is hurting teens around the country.
Sleep deprivation has detrimental effects. It increases chances of depression, caffeine use, nicotine use, and even car crashes. The American Academy of Sleep Medicine found that in a school district that started at 7:20 am, car crash rates involving 16 to 17 year-old teens were 30% higher than in a nearby district that started at 8:45 am. Even the American Medical Association and American Academy of Sleep Medicine have recognized teen sleep deprivation as a serious health risk in our society. Clearly, our society has a problem that needs to be addressed for the sake of our teens.