When I recently began working on a story on teen sleep for Stanford Medicine magazine, I was afraid I might not find teens who were troubled by sleep issues and willing to talk about them. I need not have worried: Virtually every teen I encountered had a story to tell about consistently having late nights stressing out over tests or papers or texting friends and cruising the web. It also wasn't unusual for teens to say that they kept their cell phones on at night in case they got a message from a friend who needed to talk.
Some were tortured by the lack of sleep, often nodding off in class, but said they felt compelled to stay up in order to compete academically in these high-pressure local communities that worship at the altar of academic achievement.
“I’ve heard horror stories of being sleep-deprived,” one 17-year-old told me. “You’re not able to focus on homework, you feel moody and are not able to pay attention in class.”
Another teen reinforced what the National Sleep Foundation found in a recent poll - that 87 percent of American teens are chronically sleep-deprived. “You could probably talk to any teen when they reach their breaking point,” she told me. “You’ve pushed yourself so much and not slept enough and you just lose it.”
In my research, I learned that these students pay a heavy price, potentially compromising their physical and mental health. Study after study in the medical literature sounded the alarm over what can go wrong when teens suffer chronic sleep deprivation: drowsy driving incidents, poor academic performance, anxiety, depression, suicidal thoughts and even suicide attempts.
“I think high school is the real danger spot in terms of sleep deprivation,” Stanford’s William Dement, MD, PhD, the famed sleep researcher, told me. “It’s a huge problem.”
Dement and his colleague, Rafael Pelayo, MD, who specializes in pediatric sleep issues, have been working with some local schools to coach teens about the issues and encourage them to adopt better sleep habits.
Through the award-winning Sleep Ambassadors program, they work alongside Stanford undergraduates in their “Sleep and Dreams” class in doing school presentations and training junior high students to carry on the message about the importance of sleep.
The program began eight years ago in Menlo-Atherton High School and is being expanded this year to both of Palo Alto’s high schools, where student stress has been a concern.
The hope is that the program, together with other school and community initiatives, will help contribute to a cultural change in which teen sleep is a greater priority.
Previously: Stanford Medicine magazine tells why a healthy childhood matters, Rolling through campus and talking sleep with famed researcher William Dement, Stanford doc gives teens a crash course on the dangers of sleep deprivation, With school bells ringing, parents should ensure their children are doing enough sleeping and Study shows poor sleep habits as a teenager can "stack the deck against you for obesity later in life"
Illustration by Christopher Silas Neal