young woman sleeping in a bed with white sheets

Why high school teens need more sleep

The Centers for Disease Control estimates that 70% of teens don’t get enough sleep on school nights. This number is staggering when you consider how important high school is for students and their future aspirations. Their academic performance is critical for getting into college and can play a big role in what jobs students are able to pursue in the future.

There are two main reasons why high school teenagers are not getting enough sleep. One is the fact that many high schools simply start too early. The average start time for high schoolers across the country is about 8:00 a.m. For many, this means waking every day around 6:30 to get ready for the day. However, some high schools, like the one I teach at, start much earlier — at 7:15 a.m. This means most students need to wake up around 5:45 to eat breakfast and get ready for the day. The CDC recommends that schools start no earlier than 8:30 a.m. and that students get at least eight hours of sleep each night.

The other big reason that high school students are not getting enough sleep is that they’re staying up too late. For many, too much homework is a leading cause — students are often given excessive homework that leads to late nights with little gained for their efforts. In fact, many teachers are now claiming that less is actually more in terms of how much homework is needed to increase student learning.

Besides having too much homework, many students also are staying up too late playing video games or using their smartphones. I recently polled my own class, and around 20 percent openly admitted to staying up later than one in the morning playing video games or using social media with their friends. These late nights, combined with classes that start early, make it really difficult for students to get enough sleep.

Here’s the question: Does it really matter if high schoolers aren’t getting enough sleep? The answer, unsurprisingly, is yes. A lack of sleep can cause many negative effects — let’s explore some of the most notable ones.

4 adverse effects on high school students who lack sleep

1. Weight gain and physical health concerns

A lack of sleep can cause weight gain. In fact, just losing sleep by small increments like one or two hours a night can cause weight gain in teens. This mainly occurs due to a disruption in hormones related to eating. Another major contributing factor is that teens who are not getting enough sleep often turn to soda or sugary coffee drinks for caffeine to stay alert.

In addition, when teens are sleepy, they tend to get less physical activity — the sleep-deprived body is more interested in sleeping than going outside and playing or exercising. Thus, many teenagers will choose a more sedentary activity when they’re lacking sleep. When you combine the increase in calories with the decrease in exercise, it causes the teenage body to gain more weight than it should. This is unhealthy and can lead to other health problems down the road, like heart disease or diabetes.

2. Lack of focus in class

This is perhaps the most logical consequence of high school teenagers not getting enough sleep. When teenagers stay up too late, or get up too early, they simply cannot learn as effectively as when they get a full night of sleep. In my own classroom, this is easily observed in both the first and last classes of the day. If you were to go into any early-morning class, you’d easily spot the kids who didn’t get a good night’s rest — simply look for the heads on the desk with eyes shut.

Obviously, this is not good since students will miss any content that the teacher is covering that day. Even when you wake them, their mind will still constantly be telling them to go to sleep — it’s a battle that they won’t win. And towards the end of the day, students struggle just as much. Some may drink caffeine in the morning and be slightly more awake for their first class. But they’ll burn out by the last class of the day.

The consequence? Students will struggle more than they should in class and potentially miss out on pursuing opportunities related to high school graduation or college admissions.

3. Strained relationships

Some of the effects of not getting enough sleep include irritability, irrational thought, and anger. All these negatively impact high school relationships. Like adults, students who haven’t had a good night’s sleep have a shorter fuse than they would ordinarily. Being tired makes them become reactionary and defensive — their brain is in survival mode. Rather than letting small things go, the sleepless brain makes mountains out of molehills.

So while a normal brain would be able to resolve conflicts rationally, a sleep-deprived brain simply lashes out. This anger and relationship strain can happen with peer-to-peer relationships, student-to-parent relationships, or student-to-teacher relationships. All this happens at a time in life when building relationships is key to happiness and success.

4. Depression and suicide

The CDC also states that students who do not get enough sleep experience depression at a higher level and also attempt suicide more frequently. It is hard to pinpoint the exact cause of this. However, when we look at the negative effects of sleep deprivation, it is easier to see how something as simple as not sleeping enough can have such large and permanent consequences.

As discussed earlier, lack of sleep cause weight gain, issues with school, and strained relationships. These can also contribute to depression. Additionally, a brain that’s not getting enough sleep struggles with problem-solving or seeing the bigger picture. A healthy, well-rested teen brain can more easily cope with small problems. But more importantly, it knows that those periods of sadness are only temporary and that things will eventually get better.

feet outside of a white sheets bed
Photo credit: Pixabay

Sleep is really important

Losing small amounts of sleep may seem trivial to most adults, but it can have significant effects on a high school teenager’s life. To be fully functioning and healthy high school students, teens really need to get the full eight to 10 hours of sleep per night, every night. This can be very difficult for teens to self-monitor because they often do not see the importance of sleep. As such, it is up to parents to help their teens get enough sleep.

Luckily, there are many strategies to help teens get more rest. One idea is for parents to remove all electronic devices from their teen’s room at late hours. The idea here is that they cannot spend countless hours after mom and dad are asleep on their device or playing video games. Also, parents can help by encouraging an early bedtime to ensure that it is possible to get enough sleep before the school day. Finally, schools and school districts should adopt as late of a start as possible.

The data is conclusive: teens need sleep! In reality, it really does benefit the schools as well to start later — teens will be more alert in class, will learn more, and will do better on state-mandated tests.

A well-rested brain is a happy brain — don’t take it for granted!

Photo credit: Ivan Obolensky /

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