As the blaring alarm jars me out of my sleep, I could swear I’d closed my eyes only seconds ago. At 6:30 AM, I’m literally awake before the sun has even risen. Stumbling out of bed, I struggle to perform basic activities in my daily routine as I squint against artificial light. If only I had an hour more to sleep!
Schools in the US are known for starting early — in fact, more than 75% of middle and high schools across 42 US states start before 8:30 am . According to the National Sleep Foundation, teenagers should get at least 8-10 hours of sleep every night. Yet, unsurprisingly to anyone who knows a teenager, only around 8% actually sleep for that long . While many accept this as part of the student experience, it is a serious concern because sleep deprivation has many consequences for students. Although numerous factors contribute to sleep deprivation for teenagers, one major cause is how early schools start.
That 8:30-or-even-earlier school start time causes sleep deprivation because students lose sleep when they wake up too early. During puberty, the circadian rhythms that control the body’s natural sleep cycles begin to change, causing teens to feel sleepy at a later time . This also means they will naturally wake up at a later time if they carry out the full, recommended cycle of sleep per night. When students naturally fall asleep later but have to wake up earlier, they end up sleeping less. Some schools start so early that students wake up before the sun rises during the colder seasons, further disrupting their natural circadian rhythm and leaving them sluggish.
Sleep deprivation has harmful effects on teens which prevent them from performing well in school. It causes decreased activation of the parietal lobe and left thalamus, which are responsible for tasks involving memory . Thus a student who has not slept adequately experiences declining shortterm memory. “Microsleeps,” which are brief period of attention loss that occur in sleep-deprived students, prevent students from focusing and completing longer tasks . Altogether, these consequences force students to function at a suboptimal level in class and compromise their academic experience and intellectual growth.
Sleep deprivation also poses immediate risks in a student’s life. The frontal lobe, which is responsible for decision-making, experiences reduced function in a sleep-deprived individual . In a study of driving performance, participants’ lanekeeping abilities after 24 hours without sleep were identical to those with a blood alcohol concentration of 0.07%. This shows how sleep-deprived students experience a decline in decision-making capability and slower response time, increasing the risk of getting into accidents while driving .
Other consequences of sleep deprivation prevent teens from thriving not only in the classroom, but in their lives outside of school. The release of the appetite suppressant hormone, leptin, is reduced when sleep is interrupted . This may cause an increased appetite in sleep-deprived teenagers, leading them to gain weight. Sleep-deprived students are also more likely to suffer from feelings of anxiety and depression . On top of peer pressure, familial expectations, and academic competitiveness, students experience constant stress when they cannot sleep for as long as they would like, and that long-term stress can lead to depression . Therefore, early school starting times may make it more difficult for students to maintain their mental and physical health.
Until schools overhaul their schedules, students can turn to other solutions. If a student has trouble falling asleep, exercising in the evening helps mitigate restlessness . An afterschool frap may look tempting, but limiting caffeine intake after noon will also help students fall asleep easier. Even simple things such as avoiding brightly lit electronics before sleeping can help teenagers fall asleep faster . And even though teens naturally tend to sleep later, many sleep much later than they have to. Time management and prioritizing certain extracurricular activities over others is the key to freeing up more time to sleep.
But ultimately, schools exist to serve students, making them not only more educated individuals but nurturing them so that they can become capable adults. Considering the consequences of sleep deprivation, it seems clear that schools should accommodate students in the most basic of their human needs. Because sleep deprivation is a huge problem among teenagers, delaying school start times by even an hour will significantly improve the quality of students’ lives, allowing them to be attentive, productive, and — most importantly — happy.
- Durmer, Jeffrey S., and David F. Dinges. “Neurocognitive Consequences of Sleep Deprivation.”Seminars in Neurology Semin Neurol 25.01 (2005): 11729.
- Duval, Sylviane. “Most High School Students Are Sleep Deprived.” Most High School Students Are Sleep Deprived. 15 Mar. 2016.
- “Schools Start Too Early.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 13 Aug. 2015.
- Choo WC, Lee WW, Venkatraman V, Sheu FS, Chee MW. Dissociation of cortical regions modulated by both working memory load and sleep deprivation and by sleep deprivation alone. Neuroimage. 2005;25(2):579–587.
- Wu JC, Gillin JC, Buchsbaum MS, et al. Frontal lobe metabolic decreases with sleep deprivation not totally reversed by recovery sleep. Neuropsychopharmacology. 2006;31(12):2783–2792.
- Sharma, Sunil, and Mani Kavuru. “Sleep and Metabolism: An Overview.” International Journal of Endocrinology 2010 (2010): 112.
- ”Teens and Sleep.” National Sleep Foundation. 22 Apr. 2016.
- Van Praag, HM. “Result Filters.” National Center for Biotechnology Information. U.S. National Library of Medicine, 2005.
Sandra Xu is a junior at Lynbrook High School. She is a member of the water polo team and plays violin in the school orchestra. In her free time, she enjoys reading and exploring the outdoors by hiking and camping.