Generation ZZZ - Our Sleep Deprived Youth

When Hayley was a senior in high school, she crashed her car into a tree in her neighborhood in Leicester, North Carolina. Hayley wasn’t driving while intoxicated, or coming home late from a party or piloting a car packed with teenagers. She was simply driving home from school on an ordinary October afternoon. And she was, like millions of American teenagers, severely sleep deprived.

This week is National Sleep Awareness Week—a week when the National Sleep Foundation calls on Americans to pay closer attention to the importance of sleep in our lives. As a parent and education advocate, I urge us all to use this week to pay specific attention to the amount and quality of sleep experienced by our families, and especially our teens. 

“Until that October day, I had assumed that I could keep pushing myself without consequence,” Hayley wrote to me of her accident. “I was taking all the available AP and Honors courses at my school; leading various school clubs; participating in an internship; volunteering; earning awards; [doing] really anything that would make a nice addition to my college applications. I was allowing myself an average of 5 to 6 hours of shut-eye a night before waking up and repeating the cycle of school, then after-school activities, then oodles of homework.” 

The repercussions of Hayley’s sleep-deprivation were extreme. But her situation is all too common. For too many high school students, heavy homework loads, overscheduled days, a fraught college admissions process, and a lack of balance between school responsibilities and downtime lead sleep deprivation, anxiety and—in the worst cases—life-threatening consequences like car accidents. 

Consider the following statistics on teens and sleep: 

- A 2010 study by University of Missouri education researchers found that 85% of adolescents experience sleep deprivation. 

-Drivers aged 25 and younger are involved in more than one-half of fall-asleep car accidents. 

-The Journal of Adolescent Health reported a 2007 study that found only 8% of teens get the recommended nine hours of sleep they need each night--and nearly 70% receive seven hours or less. 

-A 2010 study in the scientific journal Sleep found that teenagers who go to bed after midnight are 24% more likely to suffer from depression and 20% more likely to think about harming themselves than those who go to bed before 10 pm.

This year during National Sleep Awareness Week, I call on parents, physicians, students and school leaders to work together to advocate for policies like later school start times, block scheduling, mandatory study halls and limitations on homework and extracurricular loads so that student sleep improves. 

If you’re a parent, student or educator, take the Sleep Challenge  and commit to working toward policy changes that support healthy student sleep in your school community. 

If you’re a physician, join us this week in our first-ever free, live online stream of “Race to Nowhere”—available exclusively during National Sleep Awareness Week. 

As all parents know, with better sleep comes better health, lower caffeine use, improved attention skills and happier kids. 

This week, join us in raising the bar in American schools and making sure students get the sleep they need for their health and success.