Many of the nation's adolescents are falling asleep in class, arriving late to school, feeling down and driving drowsy because of a lack of sleep that gets worse as they get older, according to a new poll released today by the National Sleep Foundation.
In a national survey on the sleep patterns of U.S. adolescents (ages 11 through 17), NSF's 2006 Sleep in America poll finds that only 20 percent of adolescents get the recommended nine hours of sleep on school nights, and nearly one-half (45 percent) sleep less than eight hours on school nights.
What's more, the poll finds that parents are mostly in the dark about their adolescents' sleep. While most students know they're not getting the sleep they need, 90 percent of parents polled believe that their adolescent is getting enough sleep at least a few nights during the school week.
The poll indicates that the consequences of insufficient sleep affect nearly every aspect of teenage life. Among the most important findings:
At least once a week, more than one-quarter (28 percent) of high school students fall asleep in school, 22 percent fall asleep doing homework, and 14 percent arrive late or miss school because they oversleep.
Adolescents who get insufficient amounts of sleep are more likely than their peers to get lower grades, while 80 percent of adolescents who get an optimal amount of sleep say they're achieving As and Bs in school.
More than one-half (51 percent) of adolescent drivers have driven drowsy during the past year.
In fact, 15 percent of drivers in 10th to 12th grades drive drowsy at least once a week.
Among those adolescents who report being unhappy, tense and nervous, 73 percent feel they don't get enough sleep at night and 59 percent are excessively sleepy during the day.
More than one-quarter (28 percent) of adolescents say they're too tired to exercise.
The poll also finds that the amount of sleep declines as adolescents get older. The survey classifies nine or more hours a night as an optimal amount of sleep in line with sleep experts' recommendations for this age group, with less than eight hours classified as insufficient.
Sixth-graders report they sleep an average of 8.4 hours on school nights, while 12th- graders sleep just 6.9 hours - 1.5 hours less than their younger peers and two hours less than recommended. In fact, by the time adolescents become high school seniors, they're missing out on nearly 12 hours (11.7) of needed sleep each week.
"This poll identifies a serious reduction in adolescents' sleep as students transition from middle school to high school. This is particularly troubling as adolescence is a critical period of development and growth - academically, emotionally and physically," says NSF's Richard L. Gelula.
"At a time of heightened concerns about the quality of this next generation's health and education, our nation is ignoring a basic necessity for success in these areas: adequate sleep. We call on parents, educators and teenagers themselves to take an active role in making sleep a priority."
Awareness gap between parents and teens
While nine out of ten parents state their adolescent is getting enough sleep at least a few nights during the school week, more than one-half (56 percent) of adolescents say they get less sleep than they think they need to feel their best. And, 51 percent say they feel too tired or sleepy during the day.
Also at issue is the quality of sleep once an adolescent goes to bed. Only 41 percent of adolescents say they get a good night's sleep every night or most nights. One in 10 teens reports that he/she rarely or never gets a good night's sleep.
Overall, 7 percent of parents think their adolescent may have a sleep problem, whereas 16 percent of adolescents think they have or may have one. Many adolescents (31 percent) who think they have a sleep problem have not told anyone about it.
Everyday pressures + nature = less sleep
As children reach adolescence, their circadian rhythms - or internal clocks - tend to shift, causing teens to naturally feel more alert later at night and wake up later in the morning. A trick of nature, this "phase delay" can make it difficult for them to fall asleep before 11 p.m.; more than one-half (54 percent) of high school seniors go to bed at 11 p.m. or later on school nights.
However, the survey finds that on a typical school day, adolescents wake up around 6:30 a.m. in order to go to school, leaving many without the sleep they need.
"In the competition between the natural tendency to stay up late and early school start times, a teen's sleep is what loses out," notes Jodi A. Mindell, PhD, co-chair of the poll task force and an NSF vice chair. "Sending students to school without enough sleep is like sending them to school without breakfast. Sleep serves not only a restorative function for adolescents' bodies and brains, but it is also a key time when they process what they've learned during the day."
Mindell is the director of the Graduate Program in Psychology at Saint Joseph's University and associate director of the Sleep Center at The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.
It is also important for teens, like all people, to maintain a consistent sleep schedule across the entire week. Poll respondents overwhelmingly go to bed and get up later and sleep longer on non-school nights. However, teens rarely make up for the sleep that they lose during the school week.
Overall, adolescents get an average of 8.9 hours of sleep on a non-school night, about equal to the optimal amount recommended per night. Again, the poll finds this amount trends downward as adolescents get older.
Survey results also show that sleepy adolescents are more likely to rely on naps, which sleep experts point out should not be a substitute for, but rather complement, a good night's sleep. About one-third (31 percent) of adolescents take naps regularly, and these nappers are more likely than non-nappers to say they feel cranky or irritable, too tired during the day, and fall asleep in school - all signs of insufficient sleep. And, their naps average 1.2 hours, well beyond the 45-minute maximum recommended by sleep experts so that naps do not interfere with nighttime sleep.
"Irregular sleep patterns that include long naps and sleeping in on the weekend negatively impact adolescents' biological clocks and sleep quality -- which in turn affects their abilities and mood," says Mary Carskadon, PhD, who chairs the 2006 poll task force. "This rollercoaster system should be minimized. When students' schedules are more consistent and provide for plenty of sleep, they are better prepared to take on their busy days."
Other factors affecting adolescent sleep
Caffeine plays a prominent role in the life of today's adolescent. Three-quarters of those polled drink at least one caffeinated beverage every day, and nearly one-third (31 percent) consume two or more such drinks each day. Adolescents who drink two or more caffeinated beverages daily are more likely to get an insufficient amount of sleep on school nights and think they have a sleep problem.
Technology may also be encroaching on a good night's sleep. The poll finds that adolescents aren't heeding expert advice to engage in relaxing activities in the hour before bedtime or to keep the bedroom free from sleep distractions:
Watching television is the most popular activity (76 percent) for adolescents in the hour before bedtime, while surfing the internet/instant-messaging (44 percent) and talking on the phone (40 percent) are close behind.
Boys are more likely than girls to play electronic video games (40 percent vs. 12 percent) and/or exercise (37 percent vs. 27 percent) in the hour prior to bedtime; girls are more likely than boys to talk on the phone (51 percent vs. 29 percent) and/or do homework/study (70 percent vs. 60 percent) in that time.
Nearly all adolescents (97 percent) have at least one electronic item -- such as a television, computer, phone or music device -- in their bedroom. On average, 6th-graders have more than two of these items in their bedroom, while 12th-graders have about four.
Adolescents with four or more such items in their bedrooms are much more likely than their peers to get an insufficient amount of sleep at night and almost twice as likely to fall asleep in school and while doing homework.
"Many teens have a technological playground in their bedrooms that offers a variety of ways to stay stimulated and delay sleep. Ramping down from the day's activities with a warm bath and a good book are much better ways to transition to bedtime," notes Dr. Carskadon. "The brain learns when it's time to sleep from the lessons it receives. Teens need to give the brain better signals about when nighttime starts ... turning off the lights - computer screens and TV, too - is the very best signal."
How parents can help teens get more sleep
Mindell notes that "the poll data suggest that parents may be missing red flags that their teenager is not getting the sleep that he or she desperately needs. Simply asking teens if they get enough sleep to feel their best is a good way for parents to begin a valuable conversation about sleep's importance."
Some warning signs that your child may not be getting the sleep he/she needs:
Do you have to wake your child for school? And, is it difficult to do so?
Has a teacher mentioned that your child is sleepy or tired during the day?
Do you find your child falling asleep while doing homework?
Is your child sleeping two hours later or more on weekends than on school nights?
Is your child's behavior different on days that he/she gets a good night's sleep vs. days that he/she doesn't?
Does he/she rely on a caffeinated drink in the morning to wake up? And/or drink two or more caffeinated drinks a day?
Does he/she routinely nap for more than 45 minutes?
Parents can play a key role in helping their adolescents develop and maintain healthy sleep habits. In general, it is important for parents and adolescents to talk about sleep - including the natural phase delay - and learn more about good sleep habits in order to manage teens' busy schedules. What's more, teens often mirror their parents' habits, so adults are encouraged to be good role models by getting a full night's sleep themselves.
And, there are ways to make it easier for an adolescent to get more sleep and a better night's sleep:
Set a consistent bedtime and wake-time (even on weekends) that allows for the recommended nine or more hours of sleep every night.
Have a relaxing bedtime routine, such as reading for fun or taking a warm bath or shower.
Keep the bedroom comfortable, dark, cool and quiet.
Get into bright light as soon as possible in the morning, but avoid it in the evening.
Create a sleep-friendly environment by removing TVs and other distractions from the bedroom and setting limits on usage before bedtime.
Avoid caffeine after lunchtime.
More American high schoolers are graduating than ever, with this year’s graduation rate reaching a record 81 percent.
But the journey from kindergarten to commencement is inflicting collateral damage on kids. More than eight in 10 students report experiencing moderate to extreme stress. Childhood depression and anxiety rates have skyrocketed. Teen suicide rates are three times what they were 50 years ago.
Schools have a responsibility to cultivate not just their students’ intellect but their physical and mental well-being, too. They can do so by taking a page from the medical profession – and first “do no harm.” Then they must devote more energy to teaching kids the social and emotional skills they need to become healthy, successful adults.
Students’ mental health takes a hit the moment they wake up. The majority of secondary schools start at 8 a.m. or earlier. Yet studies have shown that’s too early for adolescent brains and bodies.
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, teens need 8.5 to 9.5 hours of sleep nightly. And they are biologically, not just socially, wired to stay up late. But 59 percent of middle school students and 87 percent of high school students get less than this recommended amount of sleep on school nights. Even worse, 58 percent of 15- to 17-year-olds regularly sleep fewer than seven hours a night.
The consequences of this are serious. Sleep-deprived kids exhibit diminished attention spans and concentration – and have higher rates of depression, suicidal ideation and obesity.
The pediatricians propose a radical solution to this problem: Start school later.
Even an extra half-hour of sleep would do a world of good. The Academy of Pediatrics study sampled 9,000 students from schools that started at 8:30 a.m. or later. It found that late starts improved students’ standardized test scores and reduced car accidents involving students by as much as 70 percent.
Schools can also reduce the harm they do by assigning less homework. Seriously.
Schools are piling increasingly large loads of homework on their students. A recent Stanford study found that high school students had, on average, more than three hours of homework a night.
Yet research shows that excessive amounts of homework have little or limited learning value.
This is not surprising. After all, students generally must complete their homework in distracting locations – their homes – away from the people best able to answer their questions, their teachers. And they must do so after expending all their energy to get through the long school day.
Homework has been linked to stress and academic disengagement among both young children and teens. In many households, it’s the major cause of kids’ stress – and stress between kids and parents.
All of this exacerbates teenage anxiety and depression, both of which are reaching epidemic levels.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, about 8 percent of teens have an anxiety disorder, and 9 percent succumb to a major depressive episode each year.
A recent poll asked the 2015 state teachers of the year what they believed were the biggest challenges to student achievement. Topping the list were stress, poverty and psychological problems.
With the seeds sown during secondary school, mental health illness continue to be a significant risk for students in college. According to a 2014 national survey by the American College Health Association, 14 percent of college students had been diagnosed or treated for anxiety and 12 percent for depression within the previous 12 months.
So the American educational status quo is graduating evermore students but breaking their psyches in the process.
There are better, less destructive ways to educate kids.
Paramount among them is social-emotional learning. This approach blends traditional academic curricula with integrated methods for understanding and honing self-awareness, self-regulation, social awareness, relationship-building, and effective decision-making.
According to the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Leaning, students who follow a social-emotional learning track display a greater desire and capacity to learn – and reduced levels of anxiety and stress – than those who don’t. They also score better on academic achievement tests.
Our nation’s schools must do more than just turn out a new crop of graduates each year. They must prepare the children in their charge to lead happy, productive, healthy lives long after they’ve received their diplomas.
America’s schools are not adequately performing those crucial tasks. We shouldn’t celebrate surging graduation rates until they are.