Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

Sleep Deprivation, Its Consequences, and What Schools are Doing to Help

By Maddie CrippsPublished November 9, 2014

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As evidence linking insufficient sleep in adolescents to serious physical and mental health conditions increases, schools are beginning to reconsider their early start times in an attempt to protect their students' health. However, schools face the difficult task of weighing students' potential health benefits against the costs faced by the rest of the community in deciding whether or not to start classes later in the day.
By Maddie Cripps, 11/9/2014

Sleep deprivation is, unfortunately, a much too common reality for most teens across the country. Lethargic students fight to remain focused in classes beginning as early as 7 a.m. — a daily struggle compounded by the average high school student's hours of extracurricular activities, after-school jobs, and copious amounts of homework. With such demanding schedules, students' seemingly constant groggy nature comes as no surprise. Love for sleep has long been a characteristic associated with teenagers: however, insufficient sleep may lead to more than just dreading the sound of a morning alarm. 
Recent studies suggest that sleep deprivation has serious health implications. As evidence regarding the importance of sleep for adolescents accumulates, numerous schools throughout the nation are considering the implementation of later start times — a policy change readily welcomed by most students and health officials, but less agreed upon by many parents and school administrators. Thus, in their evaluation of these policies, schools must recognize the health benefits for students, as well as the undesirable (and often costly) impacts such a decision would have on other community members.

The dwindling, nearly 20-year-push for later start times was revived this past August, when the American Academy of Pediatrics issued a policy statement, which recommends that high schools start no earlier than 8:30 am. "Sleep is not optional. It's a health imperative, like eating, breathing, and physical activity," the statement's lead author, Dr. Judith A. Owens claimed. "Lack of sleep can be fatal."

Seeing as less than 20% of teens get the necessary eight and a half to nine and a half hours of sleep each school night, nearly 80% of adolescents risk compromising their health in the multitude of ways outlined by Dr. Owens and the American Academy of Pediatrics. While teens experience an apparent lack of focus resulting from insufficient sleep, which often leads to lower grades and standardized test scores, the effects that decreased sleep has on teens' physical and mental health are much less visible.  Nonetheless, sleep-deprived students are at higher risk for a number of serious health conditions, such as high blood pressure, heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, and obesity. For instance, a 2002 study linked lost hours of sleep to increased chances of adolescent obesity, estimating that a teen's risk of becoming obese rose by 80% for each additional hour of sleep lost.

Dr. Owens also notes the impact decreased sleep has on adolescents' mental health, including links to increased risk-taking behavior, depression, suicidal ideation, and car accidents. Equating the dangers of sleep-deprived driving to those of drunk driving, Dr. Owens effectively conveys the extraordinary health risks that tired teens not only impose on themselves, but also on those around them. A 2008 study, which focused on the car accident rates for 16- to 18-year olds in neighboring school districts, found that the crash rates in the district where classes began at 7:20 a.m. were 41% higher than were those in the district where classes began at 8:40 a.m.  Further, research shows a correlation between sleep deprivation and negative effects on mood. For instance, teens who sleep less than eight hours each night are an estimated three times more likely to attempt suicide — a concerning statistic considering the fact that less than 20% of teenagers who get a sufficient amount of sleep.

Considering the facts, it may seem as though pushing back high school start times by thirty minutes to an hour would be an easy solution with many, lasting benefits. However, despite an abundance of irrefutable evidence linking adolescent sleep deprivation to various, serious health implications, there are a number of factors impeding the implementation of such a policy. Many parents — especially those with younger children — worry that a later high school start time would upset the morning routine. Further, parents in districts where elementary, middle, and high school students share busses recognize the fact that starting high school later would mean beginning and ending elementary school earlier — two factors which may interfere with a parent's work schedule or lead to increased child care costs. Moreover, the idea exists that regardless of later start times, high school students will continue to stay up late — preventing themselves from sleeping the necessary number of hours. This concept emphasizes the value of sleep in present-day American culture. Instead of recognizing the importance of sleep to their physical and mental health, teens are influenced by the notion that the sleeping less implies that they are hard working — sleep deprivation, they feel, is an accomplishment of which to be proud.

With rapidly increasing evidence regarding sleep's impact on health, schools may be able to perceive their sluggish students as more than just tired teenagers, and begin to take action in protecting their health. While the strong encouragement from the American Academy of Pediatrics for high schools to begin classes no earlier than 8:30 a.m. reflects the urgency of the issue from a health stand point, school administrators have other factors for which to account. Ultimately, it is up to individual school districts to decide whether the health of their students trumps the adverse effects a policy change would have on other community members or vice versa.