Students struggle with sleep deprivation, an epidemic that impacts teens nationwide

By Journalism I student Summer P., ’22

It’s 8:05 a.m. Honors Precalculus class just began, and freshman Hera Chung stares at her teacher with glassy eyes, drooping from weariness. The other students don’t look much better; one gingerly lays her head on the desk while another pretends to bend down to tie his shoes and closes his eyes, just so he can have a minute’s rest without the teacher noticing.

Chung resists her urges to do the same, even though she stayed up until 2 a.m. last night finishing her Chemistry lab. Her homework takes her hours to complete, so she rarely gets enough sleep.

She pushes her sleep deprivation aside and listens to the monotonous lecture of her teacher. His voice, dull and steady, slowly puts her to sleep, and she struggles to keep her consciousness. The bell rings loud and clear at 8:54, and Chung rises from her seat. I wish I could get more sleep, she thinks.

This scene plays out in schools across the country every morning. Student sleep deprivation impacts today’s teens in a variety of ways; studies show that lack of sleep correlates with lower academic performance and contributes to stress and anxiety. Recently, however, some schools have been considering pushing back start times so teens would be able to sleep more.

Chung is one of many students who do not get enough sleep.

“I go to bed around 1-2 a.m. I get up at 7 a.m.,” she said. On an average school night, she gets around five hours of sleep.

According to a “Teens and sleep” article published by the National Sleep Foundation, the recommended amount of sleep for teens is eight-to-10 hours. Their study in 2006 of over 1,600 participants revealed that at the time, only 20 percent of students had optimal sleep.

The quantity of sleep in teens has continued to decline, according to a “Why Are Teenagers So Sleep-Deprived?” article by the Child Mind Institute. A study done in 2010 by The Journal of Adolescent Health f0und that only eight percent of U.S. high school students received the recommended amount of sleep

Closer to home, a voluntary student survey of the UAHS student body revealed that just 15 percent of the 302 student respondents received the recommended amount of sleep. About 23 percent of those surveyed got only seven hours of sleep, which was the most common amount.

During adolescence, biological sleep patterns change. So, for high school students, it is completely normal to be unable to fall asleep until 11 p.m. Also, teens tend to have an irregular sleep cycle where they go to bed and get up later on weekends. This can harm sleep patterns as well, and contribute to difficulties sleeping during the week, as stated by the National Sleep Foundation.

Chung said she finds a connection between stress and sleep.

“I can definitely see a correlation between [less sleep and more stress],” she said. “The minimal sleep most likely just increases the amount of stress I get from school, and other stress[es].”

Though they might not cause one another, she believes they go hand-in-hand.

According to a survey done by the National Sleep Foundation, less sleep and increased symptoms of depression are correlated. The participants of the poll, all of whom were teens in middle or high school, were asked a series of questions related to their mental health in the past two weeks. Based on their answers, they were assigned a depressive mood score. This score could range anywhere from 10 to 30, and the higher the score the more depressive symptoms the teen exhibits. Those with a score of 20 to 30 were more likely to get an insufficient amount of sleep.

Besides the mental health decline associated with sleep deprivation, there is also an academic performance decline. Not enough sleep can limit one’s ability to “learn, listen, concentrate and solve problems. [Someone] may even forget important information like names, numbers, [and their] homework,” according to the National Sleep Foundation.

A voluntary UAHS student survey shows a correlation between lower sleep and lower concentration. Students rated their sleep on a scale of 1-5, with 1 being unable to concentrate and 5 being good concentration unaffected by sleep. The average amount of sleep for those who chose 1 on the scale was 6.1 hours, and the average amount for those who chose 5 was 7.8 hours.

The students’ lowest grades of the quarter were correlated with less sleep.  The average lowest grade for those got below eight hours of sleep was 80 percent, and the average lowest grade for those who got eight or more hours of sleep was 87 percent.

The American Academy of Pediatrics encourages middle and high schools to start no earlier than 8:30 a.m. To help with sleep deprivation, some schools have pushed back their start times, or at least considered it.

One of the first schools to conduct a student sleep experiment was in Edina, Minnesota in the 1990s, according to the Stanford Medicine’s article, “Among teens, sleep deprivation an epidemic.” They moved their start times forward from 7:20 a.m. to 8:30 a.m. Researchers at the University of Minnesota monitored the students to evaluate the impact of the change. Surveying students revealed they felt less depressed and sleepy at school and were empowered to succeed and do well.

Because of those results, the Minneapolis School District changed start times for all of its accompanying schools in 1997. Over 57,000 students were able to get more sleep, and the same positive results were reflected on this much larger scale. In general, attendance rates increased and the majority of students got at least an hour’s more sleep.

Similar results were found later at a school in Rhode Island and two counties in Virginia in 2010 and 2014, respectively. In Rhode Island, after moving up their start time by just 30 minutes, students slept more and had improved moods and alertness. The two counties in Virginia found a correlation between later start times and fewer car crashes, as well.

Despite her current sleep patterns, Chung does not think that start times would help her get more sleep.

“Although, at first [changing start times] might help, after a little bit everyone will become more accustomed to waking up at that time,” she said. “So it wouldn’t be much different from when school starts now.”

Chung also does not think pushing back start times would lower her stress.

“Most of my stress comes from schoolwork,” she explained. “I don’t think pushing back the time school starts would affect it significantly.”

However, most students want the start time at UAHS to be pushed back. Roughly 35 percent of the students who responded indicated that the school start times should be pushed back and 17 percent were unsure.

Of those who would like start times to be pushed back, the majority of students want it to be pushed back to 9 a.m. A close second is 8:30 a.m.

Arriving at home, Chung slowly enters her room. She drops her backpack to the floor and falls on her bed with a sigh. The chemistry lab will probably take me an hour and a half, then the pre-calc assignment will take an hour, she thinks, planning out her night. After adding up all her assignments, she estimates she’ll be going to bed around 2 a.m. Another late night.

Groaning, she rises from her bed and pulls out her binders. I wish I didn’t have to do all this.

Chung will continue to stay up late and wake up early; this is how she keeps up with her school workload.