Although a vital element to any healthy life, sleep is overlooked as a priority by students

By Alison Gilbert ’11 & Victoria Slater ’12

Junior Rohit Menon walks in the door, tosses his backpack aside and settles down at home, exhausted, after a nearly sleepless night coupled with a tedious day at school. He leaves his notebooks and binders for later and helps himself to a snack, making a mental note to begin his homework as soon as he feels recharged. Many hours later, with schoolwork still left untouched in the corner, Menon finally closes his Facebook page and makes his way toward the hefty pile of homework that awaits him. At 1 a.m. Menon at last stumbles onto his bed, completely drained. The following morning Menon will wake after only six hours of sleep to begin yet another day that will go much the same way.

Menon, like many other students, sleeps for much less than the National Sleep Foundation’s recommended nine and a half hours each night for adolescents. Weighed down by hectic schedules, teens are letting sleep fall to the bottom of their lists of priorities.

Defining the Problem

Although Menon’s lack of sleep could trigger a variety of health problems, many high school students share similar habits. According to the Kidshealth article “All About Sleep” reviewed by Dr. Stephen Dowshen, teenagers get an average of seven hours of sleep per night­—two and a half less than the recommended amount.

Sophomore Grace Tucker’s sleep habits mirror those noted in Dowshen’s article. Tucker said that she rarely makes sleep a main concern, especially if it were to interfere with the completion of her homework.

“Sleep is important for my schoolwork, but I don’t usually make it a priority,” she said. “I make sure my homework is done before I go to bed, even if it’s really late.”

Menon noted that long school days are the primary reason he gets inadequate sleep at night. Worn out from six hours of class, he would prefer to relax rather than tackle any more hours of additional work.

“To be honest, the main reason I don’t get sleep is because I procrastinate work until the end of the night,” Menon said. “After school or clubs I am tired so I want to take a break. I’d rather play a game, get on the computer, call someone or just chill rather than do work.”

While Menon said he averages about six hours of sleep a night, it changes depending on the day of week or time of year.

“Usually I go to bed at 1 or 1:30 but [during] the end-of-the-quarter-crunch I go to bed at 2 or 2:30 every night,” he said. “On weekends, I love to hangout with people until late at night so I lose some hours there … and [in the morning I don’t wake-up] until 11 a.m.”

Finding the Time

According to a voluntary survey of 150 students, 98 percent admit to getting under eight hours of sleep per night. All of the surveyed students reported that their insufficient amount of sleep is in part caused by a common reason: commitments. While balancing homework and extracurricular activities with family and social life, students find it difficult to spare time for nine hours of sleep each night.

Tucker said that she rarely finds time for sleep within her everyday schedule.

“I row, and practice is every day after school for two and a half hours. I also have dance two days a week for one and a half or two hours, and private lessons during the week, too,” she said. “So by the time I get home, it’s usually at least 8 or 9. I’m in honors and AP classes and my homework can take a while, and that’s what I spend most of my time on.”

Tucker, like many other students, follows a strict routine that she regularly applies to every school day. In an article titled “How Much Sleep Do I Need?” medical editor for Kidshealth Mary L. Gavin said that the human body adjusts to a schedule. The busier one is, the later his or her body will begin to wind down for sleep.

“During the teen years, the body’s circadian rhythm (sort of like an internal biological clock) is temporarily reset, telling a person to fall asleep later and wake up later,”Gavin said. “These changes in the body’s circadian rhythm coincide with a time when teenagers are busier than ever. This can make it much harder for teens to fall asleep.”

Gavin notes that many teens are going to bed later and waking earlier mainly because of school responsibilities. For example, Menon said some extracurricular activities mandate that students not only stay hours after school, but wake earlier than usual on school days for practice.

“Things like band, lacrosse and swimming require people to get up early, which is just as bad as a person who goes to bed late and wakes up around 7:30,” he said.

In her article, Gavin noted that a teen’s constant, demanding schedule can lead to a build up of sleeplessness over time.

“Teens who fall asleep after midnight may still have to get up early for school, meaning that they may only squeeze in six or seven hours of sleep a night,” Gavin said. “A couple hours of missed sleep a night may not seem like a big deal, but can create a noticeable sleep deficit over time.”

Slumberous Strains

While lack of sleep is a trend in adolescence, a sleep deficit can seriously harm a teen’s body and mind. From maintaining healthy brain function to managing stress levels, sleep is a vital foundation of good health.

School nurse Laurie Long described the effects of sleep deprivation on the average teen body.

“Lack of sleep can affect acne, lead to aggressive behavior and cause one to eat unhealthy food, such as fatty and fried foods,” she said. “It can also make one more prone to accidents while driving or using machinery. It can be like driving with a .08 percent blood alcohol level.”

After few nights of consistent sleep deprivation, Menon said he experiences the side effects of not sleeping, including difficulty concentrating, fatigue and lowered immunity to colds and the flu.

“Lack of sleep in excess does affect my health sometimes, but only if I overdo it,” he said. “That means that I usually feel really messed up the day after three consecutive ‘lack of sleep nights’ for me.”

In addition to physical health, sleep is essential to maintaining healthy brain function and mentality. Clinical psychologist Raksha Parekh said sleep deprivation can cause excess stress in a teen and lead to a lack of concentration.

“Sleep deprivation can affect teenagers psychologically in a variety of ways,” Parekh said. “Many teens will experience an increase in anxiety and a decrease in concentration if they get a consistently inadequate amount of sleep.”

Such a sleep deficit can potentially harm confidence and self-assurance in teens, Parekh said. Decreased concentration indirectly triggers a decrease in their self-esteem levels.

“When we can’t concentrate, we will not do as well in school or activities outside of school,” she said. “When we aren’t reaching our potential because of this, we will not feel as sure about ourselves, and this will cause a downfall in our self-esteem.”

Sleep in School

Not only can sleep deprivation impair a student’s physical and mental health, it may also have a negative impact on his or her learning. In an American Psychological Association article titled “Sleep May Be Undermining Teen Health,” social psychologist Siri Carpenter discusses the effects of sleep deprivation on a student’s performance in school.

“Insufficient sleep has also been shown to cause difficulties in school, including disciplinary problems, sleepiness in class and poor concentration,” she said.

Tucker admitted that lack of sleep does impact her daily school work.

“If I’m really tired, I can’t focus as much during the day, and studying for tests is a lot harder,” she said. “Also, I don’t do as well on tests when I’m tired.”

Recent studies have shown that less sleep can lead to poor test scores. In her article, Carpenter referred to a survey conducted in 1998 of 3,000 high school students that found students with failing grades tended to get around half an hour less sleep than those students with higher grades.

Menon’s grades are especially affected in his morning classes, because that is when he is feeling most tired.

“Sleep affects school a lot because I usually have the lowest grades my first two periods,” he said. “But nights when I sleep [well], that’s not the case.”

This points out the necessity for schools to begin and end their classes at later times so that students can get more sleep. According to a Columbus Disptach article titled “Dublin May Alter School Start Times” written by Charlie Boss, Dublin City schools are considering delaying their starting times by an hour to give students the chance at a full night’s rest.

In Carpenter’s article, U.S. representative Zoe Lofgren, who supports the idea of putting federal grants toward pushing back school times, responds to this suggestion.

“There is substantial evidence that the lack of sleep can cause accidents, imperil students’ grades and lead to or exacerbate emotional problems,” Lofgren said. “Adjusting school schedules could do much more to improve education and reduce teen accidents and crime than many more expensive initiatives.”

However, principal Kip Greenhill does not see the value in pushing the high school’s start time back.

“I am in favor of anything that improves student learning. This is a very popular topic right now; however, there is no scientific research that supports the idea that a later start improves learning,” he said. “All of the data presented is anecdotal, not scientific.”

Good Night, Sleep Tight

According to the voluntary Arlingtonian student survey, of the 98 percent who do not get enough sleep, 95 percent expressed a desire to improve their sleeping habits.

Menon said his sleeping habits could be improved if his homework loads were decreased and if he could better maintain his concentration after school.

“I would love to change my sleep habits if I could still maintain the amount of work I could achieve and focus I have every day,” he said. “If I can stop procrastinating and go to sleep at about 11, I’d [feel] awesome that next day.”

Similarly, Tucker is aware of the impact that more sleep would have on her life.

“I would definitely like to get more sleep,” Tucker said. “I don’t like being tired all the time, and I think getting more sleep would help my life overall.”

Parekh suggested a variety of ways in which teens can ensure an adequate amount of sleep at night.

“The best way to get a good night’s sleep is to have structure,” Parekh said. “Make sure you have and stick to a good daily routine that includes a balanced diet and exercise.”

Menon agreed with the idea of a structured schedule and considered good priorities as an important aspect of getting sufficient sleep.

“Mainly, if you have good time management and you set your priorities straight, you should not have this problem,” he said.

Despite this seemingly simple solution, most adolescents are prolonging potentially detrimental sleeping habits, even if they are aware of the health concerns and employ good time management. Overloaded with commitments, it is seemingly inevitable that most teenagers are not sleeping as tightly as they should. •