Effects of sleep deprivation on teenage brain

By Elise Martorano

dan blair cw
Courtesy of The CW

We all remember the absolutely draining sense of exhaustion experienced every single morning of high school. The jarring alarm would go off at 5:35 a.m.. We’d drag ourselves out of bed, the sun not even risen yet. We’d dress sloppily and brush our teeth, staring zombie-like at our harrowed reflection in the mirror, taking note of our pale complexion and the dark circles under our eyes. We’d skip breakfast and stumble out the door in time to catch the bus at 6:15 a.m. We’d arrive at school, zoned out and bedraggled, and sit through seven hours of classes, fighting our drooping eyelids. At the end of the day, we’d once again board the bus, tromp home and begin the six to seven hours of homework due the next day. Many of us even had after school commitments, causing us to get home four to five hours later. And then we’d fall asleep, only to be reawaken by that nerve-wracking alarm after just a few hours of rest.

Five days of the week for roughly 35 weeks of the year, during the four years of high school, students are subjected to the vicious cycle of intense sleep deprivation.

Students in high school face many competing stressors that exacerbate sleep loss. They attend school for six to seven hours a day, each hour filled by a different class. Every single night, teachers in each one of these classes assign homework due for the next day. Most of this homework involves extensive reading, note taking and problem solving. Additionally, many students are pressured by their parents and their school to take upper-level, intensive honors or Advanced Placement classes because these courses will better prepare them for college and make them better admissions candidates. More intensive classes mean more homework.

Students are also pressured to engage in after school activities such as sports, speech and debate, volunteering, theater or other clubs. These activities, according to the adult influences in the lives of high school students, make kids well-rounded and more attractive to colleges. But they are also time-consuming and could take up to six hours every day after school. Of course, teenagers are also encouraged to apply for part-time jobs, which means students are potentially given four to six hour shifts up to five days a week.

Did you do the math? There is physically not enough hours in the day for students to devote the appropriate amount of time to all of these commitments. And we’ve left out arguably the most vital factor in the development of a teenager: sleep.

According to the National Sleep Foundation, teens need about 9.25 hours of sleep per night, but less than 15 percent gets even 8.5 hours. And what are the effects of sleep deprivation? A list by the NSF includes: “(Limiting) your ability to learn, listen, concentrate and solve problems,” “aggressive or inappropriate behavior,” overeating that leads to weight gain and heightened susceptibility to illness. These effects can be detrimental to a student’s success in high school, leading to declined health, motivation and achievement.

The amount and severity of the negative side effects caused by sleep-deprivation seem to indicate that the level of activity and amount of work that students are forced to engage in are, contrary to adult belief, harmful rather than beneficial.

In Maria Popova’s article “Sleep and the Teenage Brain,” she summarizes conclusions by prominent researchers and theorists about sleep and teenagers. She paraphrases portions of a book written by chronobiologist Till Roenneberg by saying, “Teenagers have already endured years of institutionally inflicted sleep deprivation by the time they get to college: there is a tragic disconnect between teens’ circadian givens and our social expectations of them.” She also quotes David K. Randall’s book “Dreamland: Adventures in the Strange Science of Sleep,” in which he makes a case for adult ignorance being a driving factor in sleep deprivation in teenagers. He refers to “biology’s cruel joke” being that teenagers do not start releasing melatonin until around 11 p.m., meaning that they do not stop releasing it until “well past sunrise.” Therefore, asking a student to wake up as early as high school students do is contrary to their very biology. Randall says, “Because of the shift in their circadian rhythm, asking a teenager to perform well in a classroom during the early morning is like asking him or her to fly across the country and instantly adjust to the new time zone – and then do the same thing every night, for four years.”

Randall’s metaphor illustrates the gross unfairness of typical school days for teenagers. Because they are being forced to operate in opposition to their biological needs, they become sleep-deprived, which causes them to suffer academically, emotionally, physically and socially.

So what can we do about teenage sleep deprivation? I think that, although it may sound naive, the simplest solution would be for adults (parents, teachers, etc.) to acknowledge the facts that teenagers need sleep to develop and function in a healthy and successful way and the pressures that they place on their children and students prevent sleep. In his book, Randall describes an experiment that took place in the mid 1990s in Minnesota, where a high school board decided to have school open roughly an hour later than usual. Although parents argued that this would take away from time spent on after school activities and homework, and believed that it would provoke students to (ironically) sleep less, the experiment worked exactly as predicted. After a year, students did get more sleep, and the direct results were that more came to school feeling energetic and ready to learn. Fewer students reported feeling depressed, the school saw fewer fights and dropouts and after-school participation did not suffer. Most significantly, the average SAT score for the school’s top 10 percent of students rose from 1288 to 1500 out of 1600 possible points. The significance of these results is indisputable.

Between starting school later in the day and encouraging teenagers to create stress-free, manageable schedules, adults can help their children to better succeed in high school. Because teenagers need the proper amount of sleep in order to be creative, involved and enthusiastic, parents and teachers should be altering the stressors that they place on their children and students and be actively conscientious about their health.

Elise Martorano is a Collegian columnist and can be reached at [email protected]