Too Much School and Not Enough Sleep Is Hurting Teenagers’ Brains

A recent New York Times article made a stir by asserting that teens today are more anxious than they’ve ever been in history. The article cited a statistic by the Higher Education Research Institute at U.C.L.A in which incoming freshmen were asked if they felt overwhelmed by work last year. In 1985, 18 percent of students felt overwhelmed by their work. In 2010, that number grew to 29 percent. In 2016, the number of students that were overwhelmed rose to 41 percent, rising 12 percent in only six years.

All of this “being overwhelmed” has taken a major toll on teenagers’ sleep patterns — and that’s a problem.

Teens need at least nine hours of sleep per night; intensely long school days and endless homework get in the way of our health, happiness and ability to function.

When classes end at 5, I still have to go to my locker to get my coat and other books or binders. Then, I have to hurry up and walk to my mom’s car. Because our school is off a busy street leading straight into downtown, there is always immense traffic. After driving, we get home around 6, but then I have to take my dogs out, get dinner, and shower. All of this takes around an hour and a half. Now, it’s 7:30. And my mom says I should be asleep by 9. That leaves about an hour and a half for homework. But if you count 2 note-heavy AP classes, conservatory work, and regular homework, the average time it should take me is about 3 and a half hours. That would leave me going to bed at 10:30. Considering it takes me about 30 minutes to fall asleep, I’m going to bed at 11 and waking up at 6 (6:30 if you count turning off my alarm and going back to sleep). That’s only about 7 hours. And only 30 minutes to an hour to get ready for school at 8. Then, the cycle starts again, and as soon as my first period is over, I’m already wishing I could go home and nap.

I am already stressed about things outside of school, and on top of worrying about college applications and other things in my life, heavy workload and long days add to my already unstable self. Doing lengthy college applications that take several hours to complete adds to the school-day work I already have. If I need at least 3 hours to complete everyday work, adding 2 hours of college applications per day leaves me with 5 hours of work. Essentially, I would be going to bed at 1 in the morning (adding the 30 minutes of finding out exactly how to sleep), leaving me with 5 hours of sleep. There’s always the weekend to do college apps and long projects but, on top of the need to finish all of my work in order to keep my grades up and figure out how to hang out with my friends so I can have some stress free hours in my life, it’s not likely.

Sleep is food for the brain. If you don’t get enough sleep, you might find yourself feeling irritable, drowsy, and upset, along with the inability to remember facts and make decisions. In another form, you can start craving more unhealthy foods that won’t make a positive change in your body. The Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio states on their website that “ In most school districts, the move to high school is accompanied by an earlier school start time. Some high schools start as early as 7:00 AM, meaning that some teenagers have to get up at 5:00 AM to get ready for and travel to school.” Sleep promotes healthy brain function as well as a person’s ability to perform tasks during the day. If teens can’t get enough sleep, their brains can’t help them as much during school or work. “During sleep, your body is working to support healthy brain function and maintain your physical health. In children and teens, sleep also helps support growth and development” says the National Heart, Blood, and Lung Institute.

An article by Scholastic states that a longer school day boosts test scores and helps students improve their time management. That may be true, but there should be enough time to actually do everything you need to do. A few schools that do better with longer hours do not represent an entire country of sleep-deprived teens. There is also the fact that all schools are different. A performing arts school functions differently than a charter school. A STEM school functions differently than a regular public school. But what they have in common is the number of teens who get too much work and not enough sleep.

Long school days and loads of homework get in the way of how students function in the long run. Instances such as long commutes, chores, and work outside of school can contribute to a lack of rest that hurts brain function. Though a longer school day can boost test scores, longer hours and more stress takes a toll on a teenager and affects their ability to function. Maybe the idea of less work and more freedom is what kids needed all along.

Photo: CollegeDegrees360 / Flickr

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Lily Potter
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Lily Potter is a native Chicagoan. She is a senior at a high school for the arts, majoring in creative writing. In 2017, she won a Scholastic Art and Writing Award for her poetry, and studied playwriting at the Northwestern University NHSI Cherubs Program. She is very passionate about environmental issues and dogs, and has a slight obsession with Norway. You can follow her on Instagram: @justlilypotter and Twitter @lilylovesnorway.

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