Graphic by Julianne Cruz
Junior Ryan Whittaker fights to keep his eyes open. The voice of his teacher echoes in the distance. He puts his head on his desk. But no, Whittaker invokes his inner strength and combats the persistent desire to fall into a deep lull.
Struggling to stay awake is a common issue among high school students. This year, the amount of students who have been caught sleeping in class spurred the creation of @RMsleeps, an Instagram account exposing victims of sleep deprivation.
According to The American Academy of Sleep Medicine, teenagers need eight to ten hours of sleep per night. Unfortunately, 72.7 percent do not get close to this amount.
Getting enough sleep is essential, especially for teens. “Teenagers have a particularly strong need for sleep because they’re undergoing so many profound changes to their physical body, their emotional health, their mental health and their brain function,” Dr. Nancy Kadowitz, a pediatrician at Capitol Medical Group, said.
Lack of sleep may cause students to miss out on growing a couple inches taller. “Growth hormone is excreted at night while you’re sleeping,” Dr. Kadowitz said. “If you deprive yourself of sleep, you deprive yourself of growth hormone, which helps you reach your growth potential.”
US History teacher Amber Myren is aware of this impending issue. “I ask my students frequently how much sleep they’re getting,” Ms. Myren said. “They always tell me ‘I’m getting three hours,’ or ‘I’m getting four hours.’” Whittaker gets around six hours a night, while senior Rosa Darko gets four hours on average, but sometimes, just one.
Many teens find it difficult to get to sleep early because of a biological shift in the body’s circadian rhythms during puberty. A teen’s sleep schedule is shifted back by two hours, meaning someone who used to fall asleep easily at 10 p.m. will, as a teen, not feel tired until midnight.
High schoolers are kept up at night due to academic obligations, extracurriculars and other responsibilities. It is common for students to stay up well past midnight doing homework. Many pull all-nighters when they have an upcoming test or assignment.
Some may also put off their sleep to unwind after a long day. “Before I go to bed, I might be texting friends or I might be on Twitter, just like the students,” Ms. Myren said. “I know you’re not supposed to look at your phone, but I do it anyway.”
Even though students stay up late into the night to work, they still must get up early for school. Many get up before 6 a.m. to catch buses.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that school starts at 8:30 a.m. so that teens can get their much-need sleep. However, at RM, classes start at 7:45 a.m.
When their alarms go off, students rarely feel prepared for the day to come. “I cannot think when I first wake up, I just want to go back to sleep,” Whittaker said.
Waking up groggy and angry is not a healthy way to start a day, but it is the reality. “I feel pissed. I feel annoyed. I don’t want to wake up in the morning,” Darko said.
Many people lay in bed for a while after their alarm rings. “It’s hard to make the transition from bed to standing,” Ms. Myren said. “My brain is so foggy, I can’t think about all the fun things that are going to happen during the day.”
This fogginess stays with students throughout the day, impacting how they work and their stress levels. “It definitely heightens my anxiety surrounding school and how stressed I am,” Darko said. “I tend to be a little bit more antsy when I’m taking my test and a little bit absent-minded throughout the day, and I can’t pay attention in class.” Students want to work, but they often feel too exhausted.
For Ms. Myren, being tired causes internal fear about her teaching abilities. “What I get stressed about is am I a good enough teacher if I’m feeling low energy that day,” she said. “Can I be energetic and interesting if I’m having a day where I’m so tired?”
Sleep deprivation impacts other areas of life outside of school. One of the biggest is risk-taking. “Your frontal lobe is still developing, and that’s how you control your impulse behavior,” Dr. Kadowitz said. “[A sleep-deprived teen] might engage in more high-risk behaviors.” Teens are more likely to take drugs or text while driving when their minds are clouded by tiredness.
Sleep deprivation often leads to irritability and can exacerbate conditions like depression and anxiety. It lessens cognitive ability, lowering memory, attention span and creativity. Being overly tired all the time often leads to a slip in grades.
Sleep deprivation also affects social well-being. “It can affect their peer relationships because if you’re impulsive with friendships, that can get you in trouble,” Dr. Kadowitz said. “So academics suffer, relationships suffer.”
Students and teachers must work towards making sleep a priority and having a consistent sleep schedule. A baby step is to do something relaxing before bed — not including using electronics, which stimulates the brain.
Most students know that they should be sleeping more than they are and wish that they could go to bed earlier. However, this does not change the amount of homework they get, or how early they must get up for school. Unfortunately, it is almost impossible for high school students to get the eight to ten hours they need, and they are feeling the effects.