“I’ve slept a collective 10 hours in the past 21/2 days.”
If you’re a teen, you’ve probably heard something like this in hallways, from friends or in class. Maybe you’ve been the one saying it, perhaps after pulling an all-nighter to finish homework or after accidentally spending all night on your phone.
Catching zzz’s sounds nice in theory — some snoring, drool dripping down the chin, cows jumping over the moon — but it’s also seemingly obsolete; despite frequent reprimands from concerned parents and teachers, not many teens seem to be taking the advice to heart.
According to the National Sleep Foundation, only about 15 percent of teens report getting 81/2 hours of rest on school nights.
As teens experience a growing number of stressors and responsibilities — especially this time of year, as students prepare for final exams and seniors frantically make college decisions — experts say it’s increasingly important for high schoolers to prioritize rest.
“Studies show teens that sleep less than the recommended hours are more likely to be overweight and develop hypertension and diabetes,” said James Cordova, a registered sleep technologist and manager of the Christus St. Vincent Sleep Center.
Teens who sleep less also are prone to experience depression and higher rates of suicide and suicide attempts, he said. The National Sleep Foundation also reports falling asleep behind the wheel from drowsiness causes more than 100,000 car crashes a year.
Sierra Rios, a junior at The MASTERS Program in Santa Fe, said most of her peers experience this kind of exhaustion.
“The thing I hear most often is how tired all of my friends are,” she said. “It’s very clear the toll that takes on their mental health.”
Why aren’t teens getting enough sleep? That’s difficult to answer.
For one, some research claims that school starts too early. While 93 percent of high schools in 2014 reported they took attendance before 8:30 a.m., the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that middle and high schools start at 8:30 a.m. or later.
Rios, who sleeps around six to eight hours each night, said that on days when her first class begins at 11:30 a.m., she gets around eight hours of sleep “with enough time to eat a full breakfast.”
“On the other days I have class at 8:30, so I get significantly less sleep,” she said.
Because of changes occurring in the brain during teenage years, circadian rhythms are shifted by about two hours at night, therefore releasing melatonin later in the night, Cordova said. This “sleep phase delay,” he called it, “makes it extremely harder to wake up a teen.”
Delfin Peterson, a senior at Mandela International Magnet School who said she sleeps around four to five hours a night, said going to bed earlier isn’t really an option for most teens. Usually, there are too many school-related responsibilities weighing on them; even when they don’t have homework that requires them to stay up late, it’s hard to go to sleep early given how familiar they are to night owl hours, she said.
Plus, “[teens] want to wind down from school, so they stay up to relax and have fun,” she added.
Given the amount of classes and extracurriculars for most teens, staying up late and experiencing sleep deprivation have become norms, Rios said.
“People will talk openly about how they stayed up until 3 a.m. doing homework like it’s entirely normal,” she said. “It’s like school has ingrained that it’s normal and OK to put work before health. It definitely is part of high school nowadays, though I don’t think it’s a good thing.”
Adults agree: “From what I remember of high school, I think it’s just about impossible to be a high schooler, do any after-school activities and have a social life and not have to stay up late finishing homework regularly,” said Erin Berger, a former editor at Outside magazine and a freelance writer.
In 2017, Berger slept outside for a week in an effort to restore her circadian rhythms and then wrote about her findings for Outside. She said she recommends the experiment to others. By the second night of camping, she said, she could fall asleep earlier in the night more easily and felt more energized throughout the day without caffeine. She said she recommends the experiment to others.
Cordova said Berger’s experiences are backed by science.
“Light can turn on or turn off the genes that control the molecule structure of the biological clocks,” he said.
Following the switch this week to daylight saving time, people might have found themselves even more sleep-deprived and tired than usual. According to Cordova, the increase in heart attacks following the beginning of daylight saving time can be linked to people waking up and going to sleep at irregular times. Who knew a one-hour time change could have such an impact!
That said, there are many ways to restore proper sleep habits, now and year-round. Berger recommends cutting down on exposure to blue light, which is emitted by devices, and maintaining a regular sleep schedule. Cordova advises using one’s bed solely for sleeping, rather than doing homework, reading or watching television.
For those unable to follow that advice because of work and other obligations, Cordova said to at least avoid pulling all-nighters.
“Night owls tend to be less productive and have become night owls due to poor sleep hygiene,” he said.
Though late nights might seem to be an inevitable part of high school, their short-term and long-term consequences can be detrimental, Cordova said, and maintaining a good sleep schedule has science-based benefits.
“Teens are just as ambitious as their parents,” he said. “Your teachers, coaches and employers will definitely notice when you’re performing at a high level.”
Niveditha Bala is a junior at Mandela International Magnet School. Contact her at email@example.com.