Let the Kids Sleep

School, sports, sleep and the survival of the fittest

Posted Feb 18, 2016

It is not news that along with the better-known physical and biological manifestations of puberty come not so subtle switches in moods and emotions. Related, and more to the point, sleep cycles also change, making young people more nocturnal.  

What may be news is data linking drowsy teenagers to dangerous driving and to psychological disorders, such as depression.

In his February 2016 Wall Street Journal article, “Solutions for Stressed-Out High Schoolers,” Nikhil Goyal points a bright light at eye-opening research from a 2014 University of Minnesota study. After evaluating 9,000 students from three states (Colorado, Minnesota and Wyoming), researchers found a decrease in depression among teens whose high schools had adopted later start times. Similarly, the data pointed to declines in tardiness, substance abuse, car crashes and consumption of caffeine.

But, wait, that’s not all.

Encouragingly, the data also revealed increases in school attendance, standardized-test scores and overall academic performance in such areas as English, math, science and social studies.

Who knew?

Actually, physicians and social scientists have been sounding the alarm for years on problems related to sleep deprivation among America’s youth. In other words, we’ve known for a long time that our school, sports and transportation schedules – and demands – don’t exactly line up with the health and safety needs of our kids. But we drag them along anyway.

Alexandra Sifferlin, in her February article for TIME magazine, “Why Schools Are Struggling to Let Students Sleep In,” speaks to the aforementioned biological conundrum. Sleep Phase Delay, as the medical community calls it, makes it “unfeasible for some teens to go to bed before 11:00 p.m. and wake up before 8:00 a.m.” She goes on to quote Temecula, California, school district assistant superintendent Jodi McClay as stating, “We wanted to change, but ultimately we couldn’t,” citing difficulties for parents trying to get to work and costly changes to bus schedules.

The article also points to other potential disruptions, such as student-athletes’ missing class time for games and day care availability for younger students starting school later in districts with limited fleets. Nevertheless, with hundreds of districts piloting change, some have found positive results in compromise.

Sounds reasonable.

But, in reality, sleep issues are not all that are placing our kids at risk of anxiety and depression, substance use disorders – and even suicide.

Perhaps unwittingly, and even with the best of intentions, adult America has created a society of stress for its young people. It is one in which we have normalized not only irresponsible school start schedules but also an irrational college application and admissions process that has sent adolescent stress skyrocketing and droves of college students stampeding to already overcrowded and overwhelmed counseling centers.

On the high school side of that equation, Adam Rosen, a senior at Harvard-Westlake School in Los Angeles, tells me, “Along with the heaps of stress that the college process brings are pressures to do more. I’ve been told many times that I won’t get into my first choice college if I don’t play a sport, play music, study hard and have strong other extracurricular activities. I have not been told that my aspirations could fall out of my reach if I don’t get enough sleep. When we have leisure time, we are expected to fill it with something productive. When we are continually racing towards the top, the kids who sacrifice even an hour of sleep a day will have an hour more to study. Every single high school kid I know has succumbed to valuing themselves based on where they get into college. This evaluation of one’s worth is incredibly dangerous because the process itself is volatile and suspenseful. The fear that all your hard work for four years of high school could amount to your attending a ‘safety school’ is exacerbated by a long waiting period and a common practice of comparing oneself to your peers.”

What does that dilemma look like for colleges?

A recent report from Pennsylvania State University’s Center for Collegiate Mental Health raised concerns.

While college counseling centers struggle to add resources to address these trends, others are thinking more creatively about ways to help. For example, Michael Lesser, M.D., a psychiatrist, former Medical Director of the New York City Department of Mental Health, and current Executive Director of Medical and Mental Health at RANE (Risk Assistance Network & Exchange) envisions a day when college counseling services might be augmented by a 24/7 mental health and substance abuse hotline/texting line staffed by professionals. Lesser says these lines would link students to appropriate local services using a "warm handoff" approach.

Sounds promising.

Just as high schools are struggling with the far-flung fallout of sleep deprivation and overextended teens, colleges and universities nationwide are coming to better understand the role of stress on would-be and existing students.

In fact, in January a consortium of colleges and universities led by the Harvard Graduate School of Education issued a report, “Turning the Tide,” calling for sweeping changes that promote better-balanced lives and true commitment to community service. Among the goals are to increase test-optional admission schools, discourage overloading of advanced placement classes and encourage more meaningful extracurricular involvement.

Of this important initiative, Diane Anci, vice president for enrollment and dean of admission and financial aid at Kenyon College in Ohio, says, in part, “We are turning our attention to a critical developmental time in our children’s lives. Clearly, our current admissions landscape emphasizes extremely important traits, aptitudes, and achievements. And yet we owe our students a paradigm that goes beyond our current schema. In Turning the Tide, we are granting our children permission, space, and time to develop their analytical strength, their empathic and generative selves, and their inner lives of reflection, values, and aspirations.”

By doing so, hopefully we will also grant them permission, space and time to sleep – perhaps prerequisites for the survival of the fittest.