We just lost an hour of sleep by turning our clocks ahead for Daylight Savings Time. But imagine if you lost an hour of sleep — or even more — every night of your life. That’s what it’s like for our nation’s teens, who are facing an epidemic of sleep deprivation.
How bad is it? “Every single high school student I have ever measured in terms of their alertness is a walking zombie,” says Cornell sleep expert James Maas. It’s a description that will sound familiar to the parents of pretty much any teenager.
According to the National Sleep Foundation, American teenagers require about 9-1/4 hours of sleep a night, yet only 8 percent of them are getting it. A recent study published in the Journal of Adolescent Health found that as much as two-thirds of high school students get less than seven hours of sleep nightly.
If it was just a matter of early-morning fogginess this wouldn’t be a big deal, but sleep deprivation in teens has been linked to lower levels of Human Growth Hormone, which is integral to a teenager’s physical growth, brain development, and maturation of their immune system, as well as higher rates of anxiety disorders and depression. A 2010 study in the journal Sleep found that teenagers who go to bed after midnight are 24 percent more likely to suffer from depression and 20 percent more likely to consider harming themselves than those who go to bed before 10:00 p.m.
In a study of fourth and sixth graders conducted by sleep researcher Dr. Avi Sadeh at Tel Aviv University, a mere one-hour nightly loss of sleep was “equivalent to the loss of two years of cognitive maturation and development.” In other words, when deprived of just one hour of sleep each night, a sleep-deprived sixth-grader performed like a fourth grader. That’s not progress.
Not only is too little sleep affecting teens, but so is their means of staying awake. Many rely on coffee, caffeinated soda, and energy drinks. Some take Adderall or amphetamines. In Massachusetts and New York they can now stay up with the help of a lipstick-sized canister of inhalable caffeine. The Journal of Pediatrics recently concluded that energy drinks are “never appropriate for children or adolescents,” citing the harmful “neurologic and cardiovascular” impact of caffeine on teenagers.
Parents are encouraged to view sleep as essential to teenagers’ well-being and success by teaching them that sleep is as important as nutrition, exercise, studying, and free time.