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Sleep deprivation in teens: Who's to blame?

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Editor’s note: While teenagers are supposed to get around eight hours of sleep a night, it’s not uncommon for high school students to go weeks without hitting that mark. Is it an issue of too much on their plates, or is there something else to blame for all the late nights? Our SWAG team — Student Writers Advisory Group — takes a closer look and explains what sleep deprivation means to them.

Madison Summers,

Wilsonville High School

Another day, another load of homework that leaves you wondering if you’re going to have enough time to complete it all. You get home, the previous night’s lack of sleep weighing on your ability to properly think straight. The idea of a nap sounds heavenly, but you wonder to yourself if you would actually be able to wake up when the time comes. Sure, you can set a timer, but the previous eight times that you did that, you woke up at midnight and started crying because you have at least three hours of homework to do. Summers

You go on your phone instead, in hopes to wake yourself up enough to write that two-page essay on another boring subject that you know will help you in the long-term but right now, you dread completing. So you scroll through Twitter, check some stories on Snapchat, watch an episode of your favorite show on Netflix and realize an hour of precious time has gone by. You resort to caffeine, running to Dutch Bros or Starbucks to waste another half hour. By the end of the semester you’re halfway broke and get a headache every time you pass up your now daily cup of coffee.

It’s a repetitive cycle of stress and regret. But you know that despite the pain, the good grades you’re receiving will enable you to go to a good college, and find a good job — the Capitalistic dream that’s been hammered into our heads since we could comprehend simple sentences.

“But is this how I want to live my life?” you ask yourself. “Do I want to go to school and get a job just to be happy on a minimal basis?” The thoughts become hazy as you move on to write your third essay of the night. There’s no time to think.

Anisha Arcot,

West Linn High School

As students we juggle our course load with challenging extra-curricular activities. We feel stretched to the limit and a 24 hour day seems too short to fit in all that we need to get done. I know from personal experience that it’s not unusual for a high school student to find herself in a place where she must choose homework over sleep, or studying over exercise.

Obviously this is a problem. Our bodies and brains are still in the process of developing and therefore it is essential for us to get the sleep we need in order to maintain a healthy mind and body. Unfortunately our work load has forced us to focus on short term solutions without heed to the long term negatives. Most high school students are professionals at skimping on sleep and loading up on caffeine to get through the day. Arcot

In the past I’ve blamed the school system. I’ve tried to convince myself that a few years of sleep deprivation isn’t something I get to opt out of, but I’ve realized that the issue of teen sleep deprivation can’t be blamed solely on school work. Many of us spend a large chunk of our time interacting on social media while listening to music as we do our homework. This isn’t exactly optimal multitasking but is akin to doing many things poorly.

Research shows that multitasking does not work when we try to do two dissimilar tasks at the same time. Our brain just isn’t equipped to process different streams of information concurrently and commit them to short term memory efficiently. Despite what we believe, no amount of caffeine consumption can change the way our brain is wired. The caffeine only serves to keep us artificially “alert” for a longer period of time. The end result is that we often procrastinate and then try to recover by multitasking followed by caffeine consumption to keep us awake so we can work later into the night.

This unfortunate combination of sleep deprivation and caffeine is a part of every high schooler’s life. We just need to stop procrastinating or over multitasking so that we can get our school work done quickly and still have time to rest, rejuvenate, and prepare for the day ahead, without turning to unhealthy amounts of caffeine to function.

Claire Williams,

Lakeridge High School

Two years ago I stood in front of my Advanced Communication Skills class and asked the 30 or so students in front of me to “raise your hand if you get eight or more hours of sleep on a regular basis.” Thirty tired faces stared back at me and not a single hand shot into the silent air. 

Eight hours of sleep is generally accepted as the minimum length of time that teenagers should sleep each night in order to stay healthy, yet very few teens actually meet this goal every night. 

As a junior in high school and a night owl by nature, I get around seven hours of sleep regularly (which my friends are often jealously astounded to hear). Even so, I feel the sluggish horror of sleep deprivation regularly. I am guilty of having been so tired while driving that I almost fell asleep at the wheel, falling asleep during class and napping instead of eating lunch. And it’s not just me. According to the National Sleep Foundation, 100,000 car crashes occur each year because of drowsy drivers. Williams

The seemingly obvious solution to my problems is simple: sleep more. But the noxious combination of homework and a 7:35 a.m. start time each morning makes it exceedingly difficult to accomplish this. 

Colleges expect high school students to be well-rounded — excelling in difficult courses, participating in clubs, partaking in extra-curriculars, volunteering, doing sports and more. This forces us to be constantly busy for upwards of 16 hours each day. Add in meals, driving time, family, socializing, preparation in the morning and a shower, and it becomes physically impossible to get eight hours of sleep. This is my daily reality: five AP classes, a lead role in a Shakespeare play, three different honors societies, several clubs — and less than seven hours of sleep. 

As high schools and school districts become increasingly competitive about grades and test scores, it would be wise for them to consider the environmental factors that contribute to their students’ success. Should I really be expected to comprehend Calculus at 7:35 in the morning after staying up past midnight the night before? This is the expectation for Lake Oswego’s students and it’s dangerous: it hurts our health, grades, test scores and safety. 

Talia Lichtenberg,

West Linn High School

The resolve to stay up past midnight to study for tomorrow’s exam. Trying to eat a snack while furiously getting ready for soccer practice. Spending hours trying to complete homework for all the AP classes you signed up for. Sound familiar?

A typical high school student’s day is set to an unrelenting drum. Most of us don’t realize just how many sounds we tolerate every day. It is only when the noises stop — when at long last we can learn to take a deep breath and close the textbook for the night-that the unfamiliar silence makes us pause and think: Can I keep this up?Lichtenberg

Almost always we can find a way to delude ourselves that we can; we don’t really need to go down to eat with our family if that paper is due tomorrow or we don’t really need at least eight hours of sleep a night. The steady stream of work can be comforting. We embrace the insanity of it all because we think there are no other options. Unfortunately, many students realize that it is only a temporary delusion.

Most kids reach this kind of lucidity sometime midway through their junior year. It’s amidst fighting to manage classes and squeezing in a few hours of sleep that we begin to see just how far we have plunged ourselves down the rabbit hole. Whether you consciously subjected yourself to inhuman levels of work or got swept up in the pre-college-SAT-fever, many of us lose sight of the true purpose of schools.

It isn’t that pushing yourself to be a competitive applicant for college applications is an unworthy goal, but that we are going about it the wrong way. We sign up for one too many clubs hoping it will make the difference in getting into our Dream College. We find ourselves subconsciously competing with our classmates where, “yeah, well, I only slept three hours last night!” Or, “what was your score?” become the usual greeting. The longing to learn has become overshadowed by the desire to get the most points possible on the test, distorting our image of “success.”  

Yes, students need to do the best they can on exams, yes grades matter to colleges and yes you can get there by counting points and never allowing yourself to breathe. But if instead we focus solely on immersing ourselves in attaining the deepest understanding possible we may find ourselves hearing a little less noise. 

Alexander Klas,

Riverdale High School

It’s 11:30 p.m. My dad stops outside my bedroom door to say goodnight. After finishing my calculus homework, studying for an upcoming science test and doing the assigned reading for history, I still have an English paper to write. I had to stay late after school for practice and by the time I got home, I was already exhausted. Faced with the daunting task of completing all my homework and still getting up in time to crawl back to school in the morning, I gobbled down a quick dinner and withdrew to my room. I stayed up late the previous night, and the night before that, and of course I was up late all of last week to get ready for midterms. I rub my eyes. It’s going to be another long night. Klas

Sleep deprivation is a way of life for myself and thousands of other American teenagers. In the current culture that exists in high school, students are continuously pushed by parents, teachers and their peers to take more and more advanced courses, spend more time engaged in extra-curriculars and to give up ever increasing amounts of free time to strengthening one’s academic credentials. Especially around finals, conversation centers on how many all-nighters you’ve pulled that term.

Exacerbating the issue is the prevalence of smartphones and online distractions, which provide temporary mental respites from the workload. It’s easy to stop thinking for a few minutes when gratification is only a swipe or two away. By interspersing long periods of study with 10-20 minute blocks of screen usage, homework feels less intimidating but the strain on mind and body worsens.

In the long term, I feel myself getting more irritable, absent-minded and antisocial. It’s harder to focus, harder to think and harder to learn. Homework is supposed to enhance a student’s understanding of material learned in the classroom. But there’s so much work expected of teenagers that homework functions more as a deterrent. If I stay awake until 2 a.m. practicing old material and preparing for new lectures, my ability to grasp that new content will be reduced. Students’ attempts to stay academically competitive are reducing their ability to make use of their academics. My education is working against itself. Until students can pursue rigorous academic lives without sacrificing the mental capacity to actually learn in these courses, the future of these students will be crippled.

Andrew Tesoriero,

Lake Oswego High School

Sleep deprivation is a result of a multitude of factors; the world starts early. Most people don’t. No teenagers do. The teenager body is afflicted by a terrible curse: the need for far more sleep than our responsibilities allow us. We all have busy schedules, with school, and then extra-curricular activities and then homework and homework and homework.

In the midst of this chaos, there is one savior: Coffee.

I don’t care if it stunts my growth; I’m already 5-foot-10 and I need it to study for Calculus tests. And I’m not even the guy who sleeps till noon. I sleep till 9 or 10 a.m. but not noon. Still, I wake up every morning wishing I could have more sleep than I got. Tesoriero

To put my predicament into perspective, I have a stereo next to my bed that plays loud heavy metal music every morning at 6:25 a.m. to wake me up. Quite often, I sleep through it and don’t awaken until around 7:10 a.m. By that point, I’m going to be late. Coffee helps me on those especially sluggish mornings, giving me that extra jolt of caffeine to get me through first period.

However, I don’t think we should need coffee in order to have enough energy for the day ahead. I think sleep should cover it.

I know that this might just be a result of me having too much on my plate, but I’m not the only teenager who feels this way. I walk through the halls and talk to my friends and see countless others who feel the same way.

Our bodies need more sleep in order to properly function. We have a lot of things to get done in a day and only so much time to do it, so oftentimes sleep gets pushed aside — resulting in a legion of sleep deprived teenagers marching numbly into battle armed with a thermos and a pencil.

However, I can’t change the physiological needs of a growing human. What I can do is implore the world to make high school start later, to give us more time to sleep, so that we can come to school well-rested and my dad can stop wondering who stole his morning coffee.