Thanks at least in part to electronics—think TVs, computers, smartphones, and video game consoles—coupled with the need to stay in touch 24/7, a lot of folks are yawning, consuming cup after cup of coffee, even nodding off—sometimes behind their desks, sometimes behind the wheel.
And when it comes to teenagers, yet another culprit is school start-up times. Story has it that somewhere along the line, a well-meaning school administrator figured that since younger children need the most sleep, elementary schools shouldn’t open their doors till later in the morning, sometimes as late as nine a.m.
Turns out, though, that wasn’t such a good idea, after all. Most districts use just one bus service to transport all of their elementary, middle, and high school students, so, if younger kids get picked up last, then older kids have to catch the bus beforehand—sometimes as early as 6:30 a.m. Drive around some morning, and you’ll see them huddled together in the dark, corner after corner.
That early morning rise and shine comes at a high price. The National Sleep Foundation would have agreed with that long ago school administrator about younger children needing more sleep. Indeed, it advises that newborns require 12 to 18 hours, toddlers about 12 to 14, 5- to 10-year-olds 10 to 11, and teens 8.5 to 9.25 hours a night.
Only problem is that the average teen nowadays sleeps just 7.5 hours a night. Their biological clocks and jangling hormones prevent them from easily falling asleep before 11 p.m. or even midnight. Couple that with their early wake-up call—usually around 6 a.m., sometimes earlier—and you quickly see why our high schoolers are so sleep-deprived.
Indeed, according to the CDC, 69% of our high schoolers don’t get enough shut eye. More specifically, more than 50% get 6 or 7 hours, 10% report getting only 5 hours, and an unsettling 5.9% say they get only 4 hours of sleep on school nights.
All that spells trouble. In the study:
- More than 50% of sleep-deprived teens reported alcohol use vs. 37% of their well-rested peers.
- Almost 25% of sleep-deprived teens smoked vs. 15% of their well-rested peers.
- Adolescent drivers were twice as likely to have crashed a car if they’d felt sleepy while behind the wheel and/or had slept poorly,
The study also found that over-tired teens are “less physically active, use marijuana, are sexually active, and feel sad or hopeless.”
And, as if all that’s not enough, there’s a strong sleep/learning connection. In fact, researchers have found that when we’re deprived of a good night’s sleep, we’re less focused, attentive, and vigilant. As they said, “Without adequate sleep and rest, over-worked neurons can no longer function to coordinate information properly, and we lose our ability to access previously learned information.”
In other words, it hampers our ability to think, concentrate, and remember information. Mary Carskadon, a professor of psychiatry at Brown University and the director of Chronobiology and Sleep Research at Providence’s E.P. Bradley Hospital puts it this way: “It [a good night’s sleep] helps you to prepare to learn, and also to benefit from what you’ve learned in the day. It’s the glue that keeps information and sharpens it in your brain.”
Such evidence is mounting and causing at least a few school districts to reconsider their bus schedules, getting younger students into school earlier and older ones in later. And where that’s been done, performance has reportedly improved substantially. Don’t wait for your district to follow suit, though. Such change doesn’t come easily, so, as yet another school year gets underway, keep these suggestions in mind to keep your teen in high gear:
- Encourage exercise but many hours before bedtime
- Prohibit the consumption of caffeinated drinks—coffee, tea, colas–after noon time.
- Put homework on the top of the to-do-after-school list, seeing that your son or daughter gets started as soon as possible after a bit of exercise and a healthy snack, such as peanut butter-smeared apples.
- Set a reasonable bedtime for your teen and stick to it, including time to unwind, perhaps with a glass of milk and a good book.
- Make sure his/her room is completely darkened; even the light emitted by an alarm clock or computer can interfere with a good night’s sleep.
- Keep the room cool, too—neither too warm nor too cold.
Keep in mind, too, that what applies to teens applies to the rest of us, as well. That old saying about snoozing and losing simply doesn’t apply.