Getting Enough Sleep is No Easy Task for Today's Students

By Alina Saminsky
2010, Vol. 2 No. 02 | pg. 1/1

Take a look inside a high school classroom. You will most likely find a teacher at the front of the class and students sitting at their desks. Yet, look closer, and you might notice a familiar trend: many of these students are not paying attention. Instead, they are dozing off or even completely asleep.

Today, an overwhelming majority of high school students are not getting enough sleep. This lack of sleep is a serious problem, especially as students are doing more than ever with their time. They come to school early, spend hours listening to teachers and taking tests, then run off to practices and meetings, and come home to be faced with even more work. And the homework load these days is not light; teachers assign hours worth of homework each night. Our nation’s teenagers require just as much sleep as they did when they were younger, and they are simply not getting this much needed rest.

Most kids need at least nine hours of sleep per night in order to function properly1. Yet the period of this nine hours shifts as a child gets older. After puberty, the body’s internal clock changes so that it is difficult for teens to fall asleep before 11pm2. So even if a student falls asleep at eleven, they would need to sleep until at least 8am to get a full night's sleep. Considering the time at which most high schools in this country begin, those nine hours are clearly being cut short. Few high schools starts after 8am. However, there are schools that have paid attention to this research and pushed forward the start of their school day.

In schools where the start time is after 8:30 in the morning, the faculty and staff believe that there has been a real change in their students. They note that the students miss class less, pay more attention in class, perform better in class, and report lower levels of depression3. These changes are clearly not just coincidental. The researchers of these studies say that the results are quite significant and that more schools should consider pushing up their start times4. Another issue is the time when standardized tests are given. Most of these tests are given at 8am, which can, in fact, hinder the performance of otherwise intelligent kids. Out of all of the times in the school day, 8am results in the poorest scores, since the brains of the kids are not fully functional at this time5.

So exactly how much sleep are teens in our nation getting? Over 50% of high school students report that they sleep seven hours or less each night, and about one in five get less than six hours6. And 82% of both middle and high school students said that they woke up tired and unrefreshed, and more than half had trouble concentrating in school7. These statistics are overwhelming. We are making it so much harder for kids to learn by forcing them to wake up so early. And the consequences of not getting enough sleep are severe. The short-term consequences include bad moods, a deterioration in learning ability, being wearier, being less alert, having to expend greater effort to learn, and an increase in skipped classes8. All of these are common symptoms visible in high schools across the country. More specifically, the loss of REM sleep (rapid eye movement) may result in memory loss, a decline in information processing, increased irritability and anxiety, decreased socialization and humor, hypersexuality, mental fatigue, decrease in creativity, and a decline in the ability to handle complex tasks9. And with consistent lack of sleep, the effects become more serious. The long-term consequences can range from being misdiagnosed with ADHD, to diabetes, serious sleep problems, rebelliousness, cigarette smoking, depression, heart disease, obesity, and even a shortened life span10. Another large consequence of tired teens is that they are more likely to get behind the wheel when they are tired, leading to accidents caused by simply not getting enough sleep. Drowsy driving is a major cause of accidents among adolescents11. But many school administrators are hesitant to change school start times.

The major reason seems to be bus schedules and after-school activities. Schools are worried that they will have to buy new busses or spend money in other ways. In fact, some schools that have changed their start time have switched start times with their corresponding middle or elementary schools, easily avoiding this problem. Another counterargument is that if school starts later, then school must get out later. Yet I think that getting out of school later is a positive consequence. Ending school at 2:30pm doesn’t really make sense. First of all, kids have more time in between when they get out of school and when their parents get home, which can lead to unproductive behavior. Also, kids that drive home would be less likely to get into an accidents due to fatigue12.

Then there is also the question of whether this trend is only a problem in the United States. However, similar research has been found all over the world including Brazil, Italy and Israel. This goes to show that the sleep-wake cycle of adolescents is a biological, rather than a cultural phenomenon13. Teens all over the world need the same amount of sleep, and they need it at the same times. Yet, it seems as the whole world may be turning a blind eye to this serious topic.

1.) Epstein, Lawrence, and Steven Mardon. "Homeroom Zombies." Newsweek 150.12 (2007): 64-5.

2.) Ibid.

3.) Tonn, Jessica L. "Later High School Start Times a Reaction to Research." Education Week 25.28 (2006): 5-17.

4.) Ibid.

5.) Hansen, Martha, et al. "The Impact of School Daily Schedule on Adolescent Sleep." Pediatrics 115.6 (2005): 1555-61.

6.) Epstein, Lawrence, and Steven Mardon. "Homeroom Zombies." Newsweek 150.12 (2007): 64-5.

7.) Ibid.

8.) “High Schools, Wake Up!" USA Today; and, Hansen, Martha, et al. "The Impact of School Daily Schedule on Adolescent Sleep." Pediatrics 115.6 (2005): 1555-61.

9.) Wahlstrom, Kyla. "Later High-School Start Times Still Working." Education Digest 68.6 (2003): 49.

10.) Epstein, Lawrence, and Steven Mardon. "Homeroom Zombies." Newsweek 150.12 (2007): 64-5; and, Hansen, Martha, et al. "The Impact of School Daily Schedule on Adolescent Sleep." Pediatrics 115.6 (2005): 1555-61.

11.) Epstein, Lawrence, and Steven Mardon. "Homeroom Zombies." Newsweek 150.12 (2007): 64-5.

12.) “High Schools, Wake Up!" USA Today.

13.) Wahlstrom, Kyla. "Later High-School Start Times Still Working." Education Digest 68.6 (2003): 49.

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