For teens, getting a good night’s sleep is often hard to do

The life of a high-schooler takes a lot of energy. The stress of grades, college applications, homework loads, sports and other extracurricular programs, hormonal flare-ups, social pressures and the painful process of becoming an individual are enough to leave anyone drained and ready for bed by dark.

Unfortunately, the very necessary sleep that teens need to maintain such an intense lifestyle is often hard to come by.

“I often go on sleep-deprivation streaks for a couple weeks or even a month,” said Maya Crosby , a sophomore at the Santa Fe Waldorf School.

She’s not the only one. According to a 2014 survey by The Huffington Post, 90 percent of teens are chronically sleep deprived. In fact, only nine percent of Americans between the ages of 12 and 19 get the nine hours of sleep recommended by sleep research centers around the world.

Many teens have gotten used to being tired all the time. Being sleep deprived has become the norm. And sometimes we don’t even notice.

“Unfortunately,” wrote Luke Mastin in a 2013 article on the website HowSleepWorks.com, “one of the effects of sleep deprivation is impaired judgment, so that (similar to the effects of alcohol) we usually do not notice, or may even subconsciously deny, the extent of our reduced alertness and functionality.”

Crosby has a difficult time getting up for school every morning, but she claims that she generally feels “ready to go,” even if she’s only gotten four hours of sleep the previous night. Crosby’s strategy after a couple of weeks of sleeping three to five hours a night is to sleep for three days straight, usually over a weekend. In this way, Crosby feels that she is able to “catch up” on her sleep.

While sleep debt, the accumulation of insufficient sleep, is repayable by getting extra sleep, it is not a healthy pattern in the long run, according to Mastin. Sleeping in on the weekends effectively screws up your inner clock, which only sets your body up for another week of insufficient sleep.

“In effect, by sleeping late on Saturday and Sunday, a teen is suffering from the equivalent of a five-hour jet lag when it’s time to get up on Monday morning,” said Dennis Rosen, an assistant professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School, in a 2013 post on the Harvard Health Publications blog.

Dragging yourself out of bed can be excruciating, especially if you only went to sleep after midnight. The torturous early-morning routine of hitting snooze buttons, chasing alarm clocks, getting out of bed at the pace of a sloth and stumbling to the kitchen for coffee — only to discover that school starts in five minutes — is not something that anyone wants to go through repeatedly.

So why don’t teens go to bed earlier?

The fact is, though teens need a similar amount of sleep as that of a 10-year old, they often can’t nod off until about two hours later.

“During the teen years, what occurs is an unexplained phase delay of at least an hour or two, so that teens naturally feel more alert later at night and find it difficult to wake up early,” Mastin wrote. “Typically, they may not be ready for sleep until 11 p.m. or 12 p.m., and not ready to wake again until around 9 a.m.”

School and the academic work that goes with it usually tops the list of things that disturb this natural sleep cycle.

“I usually go to bed around midnight because of how much homework I have, and I feel like I need much more sleep than I get,” said Honoree Gaugy, a 15-year old sophomore at the Mandela International Magnet School. “Because I don’t get much sleep, it is extremely difficult for me to wake up in the mornings and to stay awake and alert during class. This makes it harder for me to learn and do as well as I’d like to in class.”

The school system, however, can’t be blamed for being entirely responsible for the amount of sleep teens get. Teenagers today are growing up in an era dependent on electronics. For many teens, spending time texting, checking social media, watching television or playing video games is a natural and welcome way to relax before or after doing homework.

“I spend lots of time on my electronics, especially to wind down,” Gaugy said.

But technology also plays a big role in how well we sleep. A post on sleep.org called “Scary Ways Technology Affects Your Sleep,” says, “The blue light emitted by screens on cell phones, computers, tablets, and televisions restrain the production of melatonin, the hormone that controls the sleep-wake cycle or circadian rhythm. Reducing melatonin makes it harder to fall and stay asleep.”

In addition, the activities performed on gadgets, no matter how passive they may seem, keep our brains awake. Both Crosby and Gaugy keep their phones on at night and use them as alarm clocks in the morning. The problem with this practice is the chance of being repeatedly woken by pinging alerts in the middle of the night, which further disrupts sleep.

Sleep deprivation increases mood swings, poor grades, depression, anxiety, impaired decision-making, decreased attention span, delayed reflexes, risk of obesity, substance use, suicidal thoughts and even suicide attempts. It also accounts for far too many deaths, especially by vehicular accidents.

“When you are sleep deprived, you are as impaired as driving with a blood alcohol content of .08 percent, which is illegal for drivers in many states. Drowsy driving causes over 100,000 crashes each year,” reports a study by the National Sleep Foundation.

For a teen to be able to sleep better, longer and more deeply, requires effort on the part of the teen, his or her parents and the school system. Schools that have changed their start time to an hour later have found that their students are more alert and happy and receive far better grades, according to research. Having to arrive at school at 8 a.m. deprives teens of their REM sleep, the phase in which dreams occur.

As pediatric sleep specialist Rafael Pelayo, with the Stanford Sleep Disorders Clinic, said, “We’re not giving them a chance to dream.”

Hannah Laga Abram is a sophomore at the Santa Fe Waldorf School. Contact her at ceciliasycamore@gmail.com.

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