Sleep deprivation and the American teenager

To meet all of these demands, surveys show, high schoolers usually stay up close to midnight on school nights. And then they have to get up early the next morning, typically around 6 or 6:30 a.m., to get to school on time, as most high schools start classes around 7:30 a.m.

“Most studies show a fairly consistent 9 1/4 hours sleep requirement,” says Emsellem. “So there’s a huge gap between what they’re getting on an average school night and what they require.”

An adolescent’s biology bears some of the blame for this sleep problem. As teens progress through puberty, unprecedented growth occurs in body and brain that requires a lot of sleep.

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In youth ministry we joke about all-nighters. I’m quick to point out that when hosting an all-nighter that I take tactical advantage over my students. First, I play with chemical warfare by loading my students full of sugar and caffeine early in the night while I load up on water and fruit, followed by a lot of physical activity. Second, as an adult I actually need less sleep. Third, I sleep well regularly so I’m not tired going into an all-nighter.

Yet sleep deprivation is a serious ailment for our students. Missing out on 33% of sleep each night (on average) has loads of consequences.

Here’s a quick list of problems with chronic sleep deprivation that I’ve seen:

  1. Struggling in school academically. Some schools are compensating by starting high school later. A nice step, but doesn’t solve the problem if they just stay up later.
  2. Compensating for tiredness with caffeine & sugar might help them stay alert but leads to weight gain, doesn’t help acne, excessive odor, etc.
  3. Inexperienced drivers + sleep deprivation = recipe for disaster.
  4. Overly dramatic/depressive mood swings. Teenage girls have a unique ability to make a mountain out of a molehill. Staying up late thinking about it isn’t helping.
  5. Laptops in their bedroom and unlimited, unsupervised, broadband internet doesn’t help them make wise decisions.

With all that a teenager is doing in the areas of social, physical, sexual, and cognitive development the brain is working overdrive. Not giving their brains the time to rest, recover, and work while they are sleeping is just going to lead to being developmentally delayed.

Discussion questions:

Parents: What can you do to make sure your kids get the sleep they need?

Schools: Short of nap time or delaying the start of school, how can you help in this area?

Youth workers: How can your ministry be “good news” to sleep deprived teenagers in your community?

All: What do you think this has to do with the elongation of adolescence?

By Adam McLane

Kristen and Adam live in Ahwahnee, California.

7 comments

  1. Interesting thoughts Adam. There are many times that I have students in my ministry that end up falling asleep during our ‘discussion time.’ I’ve felt that if a student needs sleep and our community can be a place of rest for them, so be it. Also, I tutor at a local high school and I feel that school may start to early. First period is dead, and a lot of students complain of staying up to late the night before.

  2. Great post Adam!

    This one mostly falls back on the parents. It’s up to parents to have a scheduled routine for their kids. Most parent have one while their children are young, but simply “give up” when their children reach jr/sr high because their “too old for that.” Clearly they are not. They are still kids, not adults, and they need a lot more sleep than we do.

    Teachers and youth workers can help by NOT letting them sleep during classes and discussion times. This only adds to the problem of students saying up late at night. Keep them awake during the day and they might actually fall asleep at a normal hour! (notice I said MIGHT)

  3. As youth workers, I think we can help by at least managing what we can control: our own scheduled events. A commitment to not have youth ministry events that are too early (before 9 or 10 am), too late (after 8 pm), and definitely not having stay-up-all-night-events/lock-ins would be a good start!

  4. My program is a little different in that it’s a drop-in, and I don’t force students to participate in discussions we have. I’m not advocating that we create a daycare with ‘nap time.’ Just wondering what are we teaching our students by encouraging them to attend youth group until 9pm after a long (boring) day at school plus an afternoon of sports. We can’t teach students if they are falling asleep…

  5. This sounds small, but I hear more and more folks who serve on planning teams with me suggest that we have several mornings where students sleep in. Allowing students to sleep later at week long camps is truly a gift to them and allows them to engage when we really want them to engage.

    Why do we have breakfast at 7am during camp?

  6. One way that school districts could (but probably won’t) help is by reversing the start times for K-12. As children grow, their bodies naturally shift from early risers to “late stayer uppers”. In our local district, high school starts first, then middle, then elementary (up to 1 1/2 hours after the high schoolers start). While it would make more sense to start elementary first since kids that age usually go to bed earlier and get up earlier, and leave the late start for the high schoolers, most school districts will not do this. Why? The all-important high school sports schedule. Most districts will not even consider reversing start times due to the fact that the high school hours will run too late negating any chance of participating in sporting events. Unless an entire region all buys into reversing schedules, a single district will never do it. And even if an entire region did switch, they would then run into problems with daylight waning before the event is over.

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