Like most Mercer Island high school students, I was always awake and active late into the night, and had to be dragged out of bed for school around 7 a.m. every morning. I felt perpetually tired or exhausted throughout nearly every school day. Busy with college applications the first half of my senior year, I often slept through classes. In speaking with my friends, I discovered that I was not even close to the worst of my peers. I thought perhaps it was just the teenage condition. I had to go to college to learn about “sleep debt.”
Sleep debt is a condition in which the accumulation of hours of sleep needed, but not acquired, sum to alter various human qualities — including mood, alertness, energy and areas of cognitive performance. “Paying it off” is the only treatment. In other words, in the long-term, the effects of sleep deprivation will only subside by catching up on lost sleep. Most high school students, however, do not address their sleep debt, or even fully realize that their sleeping pattern is affecting them so significantly. As a result, 60 percent of students under 18 complain of being tired during the day, and 15 percent admit to falling asleep during class.
Even students that realize the effects of their sleep loss often find they still cannot get enough sleep. Friends of mine often described lying in bed for hours or perhaps not even thinking of going to bed until late into the night. Most of us were suffering from Delayed Sleep Phase Syndrome (DSPS) — the clinical term for what is commonly referred to as being a “night owl.” No one wants to be a night owl; it consists of morning grogginess, daytime drowsiness, and an alertness that extends late into the night. I suffered from DSPS and its vicious cycle. And with schools’ rigid start schedules, I could never sleep enough to feel refreshed and rested. Even if naps helped reduce sleep debt, DSPS still persisted. I had no idea how to fix my problem and neither did my high school peers.
Young adults need 8.5 to 9.25 hours of sleep on average, and because of biological processes during these teenage years, many high school students cannot fall asleep before 11 p.m. And the light of electronics’ screens students use for homework only exacerbates their sleep problem. Recognizing this as an issue for teenagers, many school districts have pushed back the start hours for high school. Mercer Island residents put a high priority on educating their children. Yet, by the time we are in high school, we are figuratively running on empty. We need sleep. As students, we need to understand the importance of sleep for everything we do. Parents need to understand that sleep is the ultimate tool for success and school administrators need to be a higher priority on sleep. As a school student that long suffered from sleep debt and moderate DSPS, I hope that the importance of sleep will be communicated more often in our education system.
Sinclair is a 2012 graduate of Mercer Island High School and a freshman at Stanford University.