Board on Children, Youth and Families, National Research Council
Mary G. Graham, Editor
National Academy Press, 2000
Available free online at www.nap.edu, or for $18 at (800) 624-6242
We live in a sleep-deprived society, where caffeine, power naps and willpower are expected to make up for lack of a good night’s sleep. The impact of too little sleep, especially for adolescents, is finally getting some of the attention it deserves. This report is based on the one-day meeting held by the National Research Council in the fall of 1999 (see “Research Watch,” Nov. 1999). Although the report focuses on adolescents, much of the information is also relevant to the sleep-deprived adults who deal with them, including youth workers.
Unlike most reports of the National Academy of Sciences, this report is short (30 pages of text) and available for free online. It succinctly summarizes many research studies in a format that, although academic and dry, is easy to read and a valuable source of information for anyone who works with adolescents.
According to Mary Carskadon, a researcher from Brown University, students go to bed later and later between the ages of 10 and 17, but they start getting up earlier because middle school and high school schedules start earlier than elementary schools. The result is less sleep: an average of 7.5 hours per night, compared to 10 hours for young children. In one study of high school students, one in four reported an average of 6.5 hours of sleep or less.
Carskadon’s research also shows that adolescents need a lot more sleep than they get. In a laboratory setting, 10-year-olds slept 9 hours and 20 minutes each night and woke up naturally. As the children got older, and their “biological rhythms” changed, they still slept for the same amount of time, but they no longer woke up spontaneously, and they struggled to stay awake during the day.
The research also showed a natural pattern for most adolescents: As they got older, they became more alert at night and wanted to sleep later in the morning. Even when they were not getting enough sleep, they tended to feel more awake at night, making it more difficult to fall asleep.
Researchers agreed that sleeping late on weekends helps adolescents make up for their lack of sleep during the week, but it can also make it more difficult to go to sleep on Sunday night. It’s like changing time zones every week. Unfortunately, early school schedules mean that many students are not alert when they drive to school in the morning, and especially exhausted around 8:30 a.m., when they are typically in second period class.
Consequences of sleep deprivation include:
* Sleepiness and involuntary naps during school and driving – For example, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that 1,500 fatalities occur every year due to car crashes caused by drivers between 15 and 24 who are tired.
* Irritability, increased anger, low tolerance for frustration – Adolescents must develop more self-control over emotions and behavior that involve the prefrontal cortex of the brain, which is one of the last sections to develop. This kind of development is more difficult when a youth is sleep-deprived.
* Impaired learning – Teens with eight hours of sleep each night improve their learning with practice (following the “learning curve”), but those with only six hours of sleep have more problems learning.
The report uses the example of school schedules to show how difficult it is to improve teen sleep habits. Although research has indicated that later school starting times adds an hour to most students’ daily sleep schedule, and may help with learning and test scores, school systems have been reluctant to change these schedules. Activities scheduled for youth often exacerbate the problem, by showing no concern for the amount of sleep that youth are able to get.
The report concludes that it is important to raise public awareness of the problems of sleep deprivation for both adolescents and the adults in their lives. Many of these adults understand sleep deprivation from personal experience – 30 percent of adults report sleeping 6.5 hours or less a night during the week. This report is a good first step, and may help convince readers of their own need for more sleep as well.