According to the National Sleep Foundation, the average adolescent needs about 8 to 9 hours of sleep to be healthy. However, only 15 percent of teens report getting this amount of sleep each night. This means that about 85 percent of adolescents are experiencing frequent sleep deprivation. The epidemic of adolescent sleep deprivation affects almost every aspect of a teen’s well being, from their bodily functions to their cognitive abilities. The primary cause of this epidemic is the high school schedules which require high schoolers to wake up and go to school much earlier than their middle and elementary school counterparts, with some starting as early as 7 am.
This inevitably leaves adolescents with only about 7 hours of sleep as most teens are unable to go to bed before 11 pm. There are many implications of prolonged sleep deprivation of adolescents, but the psychological implications can range from simply having trouble paying attention in class to experiencing psychosis and hallucinations. Society often perceives teens as unmotivated and lazy. However, this is an inaccurate portrayal, as it ignores the depleted cognitive function, altered mood, and long-term mental disorders that teens suffer from as a result of sleep deprivation.
In an educational setting, sleep deprivation can be very costly to not only the health of adolescents but also to their learning abilities and memory. Sleep has proven to be an essential part of one’s ability to recall information, with the brain being much more effective at storing memories during sleep than waking hours (Rasch and Born 1). Thus, adolescents’ ability to remember important information is diminished when they do not get an adequate amount of sleep per night, especially over a long term period of time.
This can be detrimental when it comes to recalling an answer on a test or even when trying to remember important life events. In addition to memory problems, teens’ concentration suffers when they don’t get enough sleep each night. A study conducted in 2017 by UCLA found that neurons in the brain cannot function properly when the body is deprived of sleep. These neurons’ ability to register information into conscious thought is dampened because brain cells move slower as a person becomes drowsier (University of California – Los Angeles Health Sciences). Consequently, teens’ lack of sleep causes depleted function of the neurons, the nerve cells located throughout the body, which diminishes a teen’s overall concentration.
It is no surprise that when teens don’t get enough sleep in a night, they often struggle in memory and concentration as well as in other cognitive tasks: “‘We know that sleep deprivation makes teens more emotional and perform worse on cognitive tasks and testing,’…Why? Sleep supports brain processes that are critical to learning, memory and emotion regulation. At night, the brain reviews and consolidates information that’s acquired during the day, making that information easier to later retrieve” (Gregoire). In the most basic physiological sense, chronic sleep debt is extremely harmful to the cognitive function of the brain, depleting a teen’s ability to concentrate and remember important information. Evidently, a lack of sleep can lessen the cognitive function of the teenage brain, slowing down the neurons during the day, and taking away crucial time to develop memories at night.
In addition to a risk of depleted concentration and memory, teens also run a risk of uncontrollable mood and inability to regulate emotions. When sleep deprived, people often report feeling more negative emotions over positive ones: “There is more research on sleep and negative mood, but researchers have also found that people who are more sleep deprived report feeling less friendly, elated, empathic, and report a generally lower positive mood” (Gordon). Teens desperately need the right amount of sleep, and when they lose that sleep, their ability to control their overall outlook and emotions decline dramatically.
The loss of emotional regulation in adolescents often leads to other emotional deficiencies, such as control: “‘So imagine that self-control is like a muscle—if we exert a lot of energy and expend a lot of effort, we need rest and recuperation in order to restore one’s ability to self-regulate’” (Center for Discovery). Sleep is vital in a teen’s ability to regulate their emotions and impulses; without it, the teen is rendered emotionally vulnerable. This lack of self-control is due to the strain sleep deprivation causes on the brain: “Research shows sleep deprivation increases activity in the emotional rapid response center of the brain—an area known as the amygdala.
This part of the brain controls many of our immediate emotional reactions. When short on sleep, the amygdala goes into overdrive, causing us to be more intensely reactive to situations” (Breus 1). The reason teens are more impulsive extends far beyond poor mood, but because of strain put on teens’ amygdala as a result of sleep deprivation. Quite obviously, teens are losing more than just sleep; they are also losing emotional control, self-control, and regulating their reactions to life stressors.
Perhaps the greatest consequences of the adolescent sleep deprivation epidemic are the serious mental disorders that can develop over time as a result of chronic lack of sleep. One of the most likely disorders to develop as a result of sleep deprivation can be depression: “‘Getting enough sleep is one of the most powerful ways we can protect ourselves against depression. The structures in the brain that support the most powerful antidepressant, serotonin, are built and rebuilt between the sixth and the eighth hour of sleep.” (Mind Matters).
When the brain is unable to properly rebuild critical structures that prevent anxiety and depression, it leaves the sleep-deprived teen perceptible to developing this mental illness. The risk is especially serious when issues with sleep are chronic: “Sleep problems also increase the risk of developing depression. A longitudinal study of about 1,000 adults ages 21 to 30 enrolled in a Michigan health maintenance organization found that, compared with normal sleepers, those who reported a history of insomnia during an interview in 1989 were four times as likely to develop major depression by the time of a second interview three years later” (Harvard Mental Health Letter). When one is significantly sleep-deprived, it often leads to depression and other psychiatric disorders, which greatly affects the quality of life a teen experiences.
Especially since there is an existing correlation between psychiatric disorders and sleep deprivation:“‘There seems to be a casual relationship between impaired sleep and some of the psychiatric symptomatology and disorders that we’re seeing,’ says Robert Stickgold, an associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School” (Swaminathan 1). Teens are already prone to mental illnesses, and it seems that their lack of sleep can only worsen the likelihood of developing such diseases. The sleep deprivation that a teen chronically endures have life-altering effects that extend beyond simply not being able to focus on a test. These effects, such as anxiety, stress, depression, and other psychiatric disorders can detrimental to the overall well being of an adolescent.
In an overall analysis of the evidence, it is quite clear that there is an adolescent sleep deprivation epidemic. Teens are chronically not sleeping enough, and this affects every aspect of their mood, personality, and ability to function in their daily life. This epidemic will likely cause some adolescents long-term mental illnesses as well as decreased quality of life as a result of not getting enough sleep each night. Clearly, the only way to correct this problem is to implement later start times in high schools. The research is clear- teens are not designed to wake up early, yet millions of high school students are out of bed before 7, or even 6 am, every day. With later start times, teens can follow their circadian rhythm and get enough sleep while preventing the development of a wide variety of health and cognitive problems that can occur.
- Admin. “Can Sleep Deprivation Cause Teenagers to Have Mental Disorders?” Center For Discovery, Center For Discovery, 29 Sept. 2016, centerfordiscovery.com/blog/can-sleep-deprivation-cause-teenagers-have-mental-disorders/.
- Breus, Michael. “How Sleep Deprivation Hurts Your Emotional Health.” Your Guide to Better Sleep, TheSleepDoctor, 1 May 2018, thesleepdoctor.com/2018/05/01/how-sleep-deprivation-hurts-your-emotional-health/.
- Dahl, Ronald E. “The Consequences of Insufficient Sleep for Adolescents: Links between Sleep and Emotional Regulation.” The Phi Delta Kappan, vol. 80, no. 5, 1999, pp. 354–359. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/20439447.
- Division of Sleep Medicine at Harvard Medical School. “Sleep and Mood.” Benefits of Sleep | Healthy Sleep, 15 Dec. 2008, healthysleep.med.harvard.edu/need-sleep/whats-in-it-for-you/mood.
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- Gordon, Amie M. “Up All Night: The Effects of Sleep Loss on Mood.” Psychology Today, Sussex Publishers, 13 Aug. 2013, www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/between-you-and-me/201308/all-night-the-effects-sleep-loss-mood.
- Gregoire, Carolyn. “5 Scary Health Effects Of Sleep Deprivation During The Teen Years.” The Huffington Post, TheHuffingtonPost.com, 24 July 2015, www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/7-scary-ways-sleep-deprivation-affects-teen-physical-and-mental-health_us_55a7bd07e4b04740a3df0fb3.
- Harvard Health Publishing. “Sleep and Mental Health.” Harvard Health Blog, Harvard Health Publishing, July 2009, www.health.harvard.edu/newsletter_article/sleep-and-mental-health.
- Rasch, Björn, and Jan Born. “About Sleep’s Role In Memory.” National Center for Biotechnology Information, American Physiological Society, Apr. 2013, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3768102/.
- Rodriguez, Tori. “Teenagers Who Don’t Get Enough Sleep at Higher Risk for Mental Health Problems.” Scientific American, 1 July 2015, www.scientificamerican.com/article/teenagers-who-don-t-get-enough-sleep-at-higher-risk-for-mental-health-problems/.
- Swaminathan, Nikhil. “Can a Lack of Sleep Cause Psychiatric Disorders?” Scientific American, Scientific American, 23 Oct. 2007, www.scientificamerican.com/article/can-a-lack-of-sleep-cause/.
- Tarokh, Leila, et al. “Sleep in Adolescence: Physiology, Cognition and Mental Health.” US National Library Medicine of , 13 Aug. 2016, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5074885/.
- “Teens and Sleep.” National Sleep Foundation, www.sleepfoundation.org/sleep-topics/teens-and-sleep.
- “The Importance of Sleep for Teenagers.” MindMatters, Australian Government Department of Health, 8 Feb. 2016, www.mindmatters.edu.au/about-mindmatters/news/article/2016/02/08/the-importance-of-sleep-for-teenagers.
- University of California- Los Angeles Health Services. “Blame Tired Brain Cells for Mental Lapses after Poor Sleep: Study Reveals Sleep Deprivation Disrupts Brain-Cell Communication.” ScienceDaily, ScienceDaily, 6 Nov. 2017, www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2017/11/171106112312.htm.