Are teenagers lazy?
Their penchant for sleeping through a school morning alarm and spending the entire weekend in bed is sometimes chalked up to lack of motivation.
Research shows that sleepy teens are actually suffering from chronic sleep deprivation. Not only does this drowsy condition affect their performance in school and their behavior at home, but it also has a profound impact on the safety of others in their community. The reasons for teenage sleep deprivation may surprise you.
The onset of back-to-school season brings the carefree days of summer to an abrupt end. After three months of relative freedom, the return to a regimented school routine is
challenging to some students, to say the least. Even more challenging is the early starting time of that schedule. Across the country, many teens are waking up at 6:30am or earlier in order to be in class by 7:30am.
Some might call this good training for adulthood—after all, professionals with a daily commute are used to rising with the sun in order to get to work on time. But teenagers have the added challenge of being smack in the middle of a physical transition that takes a tremendous toll on their energy. It is generally agreed that teenagers require more sleep than adults, especially during the school year.
”Almost all teen-agers, as they reach puberty, become walking zombies because they are getting far too little sleep.”
At first, addressing teen sleep deprivation seems like a simple fix: get teenagers to go to bed earlier. But studies show that this solution is biologically complicated. The University of California Los Angeles Sleep Center has just one of many studies that show how adolescence changes the body’s ability to fall asleep:
“One change in the body during puberty is…a shift in the timing of your circadian rhythms…called ‘sleep phase delay.’ The need to sleep is delayed for about two hours. At first, teens may appear to be suffering from insomnia. They will have a hard time falling asleep at the usual time.”
For many teens, sleep phase delay sets their internal clocks to get sleepy around 11:00pm. This leaves them only about seven hours to sleep before having to get up for class. While this two-hour gap may not seem like much, it compounds over time, especially under the added demands of schoolwork, sports and extracurricular activities, after-school jobs, studying and homework, plus the myriad emotional and physical changes that come with puberty. The end result is an epidemic of sleep deprived teens.
According to Cornell University psychologist James B. Maas, PhD, one of the nation’s leading sleep experts, ”Almost all teen-agers, as they reach puberty, become walking zombies because they are getting far too little sleep.”
Even if parents and teachers are unaware of this chronic sleep deprivation problem for teens, they are all too aware of the issues that haunt sleepy teens. According to the American Psychological Association, “insufficient sleep has…been shown to cause difficulties in school, including disciplinary problems, sleepiness in class and poor concentration.”
Communities are also becoming increasingly aware of the result of sleep-deprived teens. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports that drowsiness and fatigue cause more than 100,000 traffic accidents each year, with more than half of these crashes caused by young drivers.
Sleepy teen drivers are perhaps the most vulnerable when it comes to negotiating traffic. Lack of experience behind the wheel, driving during the most traffic-heavy times of day, the stress of avoiding a tardy slip by getting to school on time—these are all at play for a teen driver on any given morning. Add a little sleep deprivation to the mix, and you have all the conditions for a roadside crash. Just a short lapse in attention can be all it takes for an accident to happen.
Medical researchers estimate that a teenager requires about 8-10 hours of sleep. They have even been able to pinpoint when a teenager’s body naturally begins to compensate for lack of sleep. According to a joint study between Brown University and College of the Holy Cross, almost half of students who began school at 7:20am became “pathologically sleepy” at 8:30. Afternoon was also found to be a prime time for teens to drift off or, if kept awake, to suffer from irritability, mood swings and other behavioral issues.
Parents, school administrators and local legislators are grasping the importance of preventing the potential harm caused by sleepy teens behind the wheel. Connecticut, California and Massachusetts are just a few of the states considering a later starting time for their public school schedules.
“There is substantial evidence that the lack of sleep can cause accidents, imperil students’ grades and lead to or exacerbate emotional problems,” said California state representative Zoe Lofgren, adding that this school schedule “could do more to improve education and reduce teen accidents and crime than many more expensive initiatives.”
The benefits of adequate sleep begin at home, with improved behavior and ability to interact socially. The benefits expand to school performance; students who got more sleep were found to receive higher grades. Ultimately, entire communities see the benefit, with fewer road accidents caused by drowsy driving.
Parents can put these benefits in motion by creating a supportive structure for their teenager’s sleep schedule. By limiting stimulation at late hours (such as computers, video games and heavy studying), maintaining good diet and exercise habits, and regulating naps and weekend lie-ins, teenagers will be able to get the sleep they need for optimal performance, both in school and on the road.