Written by Elinor Aspegren
Published in the September 11, 2015 issue
Senior Helen Foley had only slept five hours the previous night. After a long day of school, she fell asleep in her car for two hours. As soon as she got home, she stayed in her car, too tired to do anything else. This was a regular pattern for Foley. “During the school day, I am usually fine because I get enough sleep to keep me awake during classes,” she said. “But as soon as the school day is over, I am ready for a nap.”
Junior Andrés Goldszmidt had forgotten to do his history notes the night before. He hurriedly finished them early the next morning and ran to school to take his quiz, but there was one problem. “When I received the quiz I realized I had taken notes on the wrong section because I was so tired,” he said. “I failed the quiz.”
Of all the demographics, teens are more likely than anyone else to fall short when it comes to sleep. According to the National Adolescent and Young Adult Health Information Center (NAHIC), in 2011, two-thirds of adolescents reported insufficient amounts sleep. Over a quarter of high school students have reported falling asleep in class at least once a week. In young adults, a lack of sufficient sleep has been linked to poor self-rated health and psychological distress.
Problems and effects
Senior Katie Barrett, who usually gets around eight to nine hours of sleep per night, has noticed the poor effects when she gets less than that amount in consecutive nights. “If I go multiple days with less sleep, I care less about my classes—I lose focus and don’t give my full attention,” she said.
Sleep deprivation can cause more than just daytime sleepiness and poor focus. “If adequate sleep is not had, studies have shown that mind and body are not at 100 percent,” school guidance counselor Myesha Compton said. “This affects your ability to focus, to pay attention in class [and] your ability to commit things to memory.”
Sleep deprivation also has a number of social effects. “The biological effects [of sleep loss], which in turn effect social experiences, are an instable mood [and] not being able to regulate emotions,” Compton said.
Moreover, sleep deprivation has dangerous health effects. Insufficient sleep can increase the risk of high blood pressure and, heart disease, Type 2 diabetes and obesity; it is also linked to risk-taking behavior, depression and car accidents.
Benefits of more sleep
According to Barrett, sleep also helps her focus in her classes and on her homework. “Sometimes, if I have a lot of homework, I go to sleep before and wake up an hour early to finish it,” she said. “When I do that, I notice I do a much better job on that homework by sleeping before rather than staying up late to finish it.” Barrett does better on her morning homework because of the process that takes place while she is asleep. Sleep allows the brain to better take in new experiences and knowledge, increase understanding and retention. But more than just organizing your memories, it also helps reduce stress. A good night’s sleep can help lower blood pressure and elevated levels of stress hormones.
How to get better sleep
According to Barrett, there’s no simple fix to repairing sleep loss in teens. “You can’t just tell someone to get more hours of sleep because a lot of the time there are factors preventing that student from sleeping that need to be addressed,” she said.
Compton agrees that sleep is only a piece of the puzzle. She recommends unplugging from 12 a.m. to 6 a.m. every day—no phone, not even for an alarm—and taking care of your body through exercise and regular eating. “When you take care of yourself in that manner, your body’s natural desire to fall into a regular pattern of sleep kicks in,” she said.
Ultimately, the cure for sleep deprivation is getting more sleep. “In the end, there is enough time in the day to do everything that is completely necessary, and if you are staying up and cutting in on your sleep, then it is because you are adding things into your day that you do not have time for,” Foley said. Making sleep a priority or taking naps will help work become more efficient.
Goldszmidt points to the emotional effects of getting more sleep in his advice. “Choose sleep, you will be much happier,” he said.