Sleepless Students

When my classmates stay up late, I notice right away as they stagger into class, sporting dark bags beneath their eyes. It bothers me to see so many of my classmates in this state. I’ve noticed a trend: on days with large projects due or exams, half of the class is either yawning or nodding off.

This problem is not unique to my high school; it is a widespread issue of concern. According to a poll by the National Sleep Foundation [1], the vast majority of teens are not getting enough sleep on a nightly basis. The American Academy of Sleep Medicine recommends [2] that high school students get 8 to 10 hours of sleep daily, but on an average school night, more than 33% of high school students get 6 or fewer hours [3]. This chronic under-sleep can have devastating effects. In a detailed report from 2014 [4], the American Academy of Pediatrics declared chronic sleep loss in teens a serious threat to the wellness of our nation’s youth and an important public health issue.

Why are teens staying up so late at night? In the early 1990s, Carskadon [5] uncovered a now widely-recognized phenomenon that teens tend to delay their bedtimes because their circadian rhythms, the internal biological clock, shifts to a later time.  As a teenage body goes through puberty, the brain starts producing melatonin, the sleep hormone, after 11 p.m. and continues releasing the hormone in the morning. As such, the natural time for high school students to fall asleep is 11 p.m. or later. This biological change explains why teenagers seem more awake at midnight and sleepy in the morning.

What is keeping teens up so late at night? Armed with today’s technology, teens are constantly connected via computers and mobile devices. Students are doing homework, discussing assignments, and chatting through various platforms such as text messaging, Facebook, or Snapchat—simultaneously. It’s easier to manage your own time around your own tasks. However, in a group environment that is constantly connected, there are many unexpected distractions leading to decreased efficiency. Students tend to stay up late as a group, not individually. In the morning, they are forced to get up early for their first class of the day. Studies [6] show that early start times in schools is associated with significant sleep deprivation and daytime sleepiness. Furthermore, facing greater academic demands and more competitive college admission standards, high school students are under intense pressure to succeed. They are taking more advanced classes and more extracurricular activities. Many students are taking six to seven classes as well as AP or honors courses while juggling sports, clubs, part-time jobs and volunteer work. As a result, homework and extracurricular activities eat into a student’s sleep time. All of these factors contribute to the prevalence of chronically sleep-deprived teenagers.

Chronic under-sleeping can even stunt growth in teenagers. Teens are at an important stage in their growth and development as they experience rapid gains in height and weight, continued brain development in cognition and emotion and active involvement in social activities. Laboratory data [5] suggests that teens actually have a physiological need for more sleep to accommodate the extra internal work required for such rapid growth, not less. With chronic insufficient sleep, teens’ growth may be adversely affected, as growth hormone is normally released during sleep while conversely, sleep disturbance suppresses the release of growth hormone. A 1999 study [7] found that sleep deprivation resulted in a significant reduction in cortisol and growth hormone secretion the next day, driven by the increase of slow wave sleep. Further research is warranted to understand the potential risk and long-term effect of sleep deprivation on adolescent growth.

Moreover, chronic under-sleeping has been shown to negatively impact a teen’s ability to perform in school. In a recent report [2], a Pediatric Consensus Panel of 13 of the nation’s foremost sleep experts found that sleeping fewer than the recommended hours is associated with attention, behavior, and learning issues. A 2007 study [8] concluded that a chronic sleep-restricted state adversely affects the brain and cognitive function. Sleep supports brain processes that are critical to the regulation of learning, memory and emotion. At night, the brain reviews and consolidates information it acquired during the day, making that information easier to retrieve later. A 2000 study [9] monitoring brain activity in verbal learning discovered that the brain’s prefrontal cortex, an area that supports cognitive functions such as working memory and logical reasoning, was more responsive in sleep-deprived subjects. This indicates that the brain of a sleep-deprived subject had to work harder to accomplish a given task. Another study in 2006 [10] showed that sleep deprivation caused individuals to make significant errors in response. Research concluded that lack of sleep will reduce efficiency and productivity, make concentration difficult, shorten attention span, and impair working memory.  The end result is reduced academic performance for students.

Chronic under-sleeping is also linked to higher rates of depression among teenagers. A 2014 study [11] of 27,939 suburban high school students found that each hour of lost sleep is associated with a 38% increase in the risk of feeling sad or hopeless, a 42% increase in the odds of seriously considering suicide, and 58% greater odds of attempted suicide.  According to a 2010 study of 262 high school seniors, which was presented in San Antonio at SLEEP 2010 [12], 30% of the participants indicated strong depression symptoms, while an additional 32% of the participants indicated some symptoms of depression. Students with excessive daytime sleepiness were three times more likely to suffer from depression. This year, the Pediatric Consensus Panel concluded [2] that insufficient sleep in teenagers is associated with increased risk of self-harm, suicidal thoughts, and suicide attempts.

Because sleep deprivation has such devastating effects, society as a whole should work to combat chronic under-sleeping among teenagers. Research concluded that later starting times for high school has the positive effects of reducing sleepiness, easing stress, and increasing the amount of sleep for students. As a result, the American Academy of Pediatrics issued a strong policy statement encouraging middle and high school districts across the country to shift school start time after 8:30 a.m. to help preserve the health of the nation’s youth. Schools can take the initiative by shifting to later start times so that teens can get more sleep.  My high school in Saratoga deserves credit for taking a step toward addressing the issue by moving the first period from 7:50 a.m. to 8:15 a.m.  The move is welcomed and appreciated by most students and parents. Teachers can help by evenly distributing assignment due dates so that students don’t have overwhelming amounts of homework due on the same day. Parents and teachers together can help by reducing workloads and relieving pressure on teens so that they can sleep more. Parents can also help teens set their sleep time and encourage them to sleep the recommended number of hours. Students can also do better by improving their time management skills. As students, we can help ourselves by reducing the amount of time we spend on our smart phones. Together, we can grow up healthier.


  1. “2006 Sleep in America Poll: Summary of Findings.” National Sleep Foundation, 2006.
  2. “Recharge with sleep: Pediatric sleep recommendations promoting optimal health.”  American Academy of Sleep Medicine, 13 June, 2016.
  3. Danice K. Eaton, Lela R. McKnight-Eily, Richard Lowry, et al. “Prevalence of Insufficient, Borderline, and Optimal Hours of Sleep Among High School Students – United States, 2007.” Journal of Adolescent Health,  April 2010 Volume 46, Issue 4.
  4. Judith Owens’ “Insufficient Sleep in Adolescents and Young Adults: An Update on Causes and Consequences.” American Academy of Pediatrics, September 2014, Volume 134, Issue 3.
  5. Mary A. Carskadon “Patterns of sleep and sleepiness in adolescents.” Pediatrician 1990; 17:5- 12.
  6. Mary A. Carskadon, Amy R. Wolfson, Christine Acebo, et al. “Adolescent Sleep Patterns, Circadian Timing, and Sleepiness at a Transition to Early School Days.” SLEEP, Volume 21, 1998.
  7. Alexandros N. Vgontzas, George Mastorakos, Edward O. Bixler, et al. “Sleep deprivation effects on the activity of the hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal and growth axes: potential clinical implications.” Clinical Endocrinology Volume 51, Issue 2, August 1999.
  8. Paula Alhola and Päivi Polo-Kantola, “Sleep deprivation: Impact on cognitive performance.”  Neuropsychiatr Dis Treat. 2007 Oct; 3(5): 553–567.
  9. Sean P. A. Drummond, Gregory G. Brown, J. Christian Gillin, et al. “Altered brain response to verbal learning following sleep deprivation.” Nature 403, 655-657 (10 February 2000).
  10. Sean P. A. Drummond, Martin P. Paulus, Susan F. Tapert, “Effects of two nights sleep deprivation and two nights recovery sleep on response inhibition.” Journal of Sleep Research, August 2006.
  11. Adam Winsler, Aaron Deutsch, Robert Daniel Vorona, “Sleepless in Fairfax: The Difference One More Hour of Sleep Can Make for Teen Hopelessness, Suicidal Ideation, and Substance Use.” J Youth Adolescence, August 2014.
  12. Billah T, Siddique R, Apter JT, et al. “Association of depression and sleep deprivation amongst a high school population.”  SLEEP Volume 33, 2010.

Harrison Cui is a senior at Saratoga High School in California. He avidly promotes the well-being of his peers as part of the nonprofit BayEcho Association, and has a budding passion for bioengineering, computing, and writing. He aspires to draw upon his knowledge to improve the lives of the people around him.

Follow The Triple Helix Online on Twitter and join us on Facebook.