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US Students Most Sleep Deprived

Sleep Research
Read Time: 5 minutes

  • Sleep deprivation prevails among American students, with a significant correlation between insufficient sleep and reduced academic performance in critical subjects such as math and science.
  • This trend of student sleep deprivation is observed particularly in wealthier, technologically advanced countries, where access to electronic devices and other distractions contribute to sleep loss.
  • Adolescents and children require a considerable amount of sleep for healthy cognitive development. Insufficient rest impairs the brain’s ability to process information and consolidate memories, ultimately affecting learning and academic performance.

We all know sleep is important, but for students this can be doubly true as growing bodies and brains require a lot of rest. However, getting kids to sleep enough can be difficult between busy schedules and homework, not to mention enticing distractions like games and television.

One recent study from the Boston College paints a concerning picture for U.S. parents and educators, as their overview of  2011 TIMSS surveys indicate that students in America actually are the most sleep-deprived of kids from 50 countries and that this sleep loss may be contributing to weaker academic performance.

Out of over 900,000 students who were assessed (via surveys of the students, teachers and parents), sleep loss was cited as the cause of worsening performance in the two critical areas of math and science. New Zealand, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Australia, in order, followed the U.S. to round out the top five nations with the most sleep-deprived students. The wealthier and more technologically advanced countries tended to be most sleep-deprived, likely due to increasing access to electronics and other distractions, according to researchers. Countries where sleep loss is least common included Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Slovakia, Japan and Malta.

Overall, the study showed that 73% of American students in the age bracket of 9 to 10 years experienced sleep deprivation, while in the 13 and 14 year-old bracket, nearly 80% were impacted. The results were also broken down into ages and states, with Colorado middle school students suffering the most sleep loss and those in Massachusetts the least. Internationally, the performance in these two age groups was ranked 47% and 57% showing significantly higher sleep deprivation for U.S. kids and teens.

The researchers highlight the sleep deprivation significantly impacts learning and concentration, both of which are crucial for students. Additionally, they mention that high percentages of sleep-deprived learners also affect how teachers instruct, and may bring down well-rested students as well as the class lags behind.

How much sleep should students get?

Sleep needs vary throughout our life spans, and children are on the high end of the spectrum when it comes to amount of rest required for mental and physical health. The National Sleep Foundation recommends a minimum of 10 to 11 hours for kids aged 5 to 10 years old, and a minimum of 9 hours for kids age 10 to 17 years. During adolescence, the brain is learning as quickly as it did in infancy and coupled with a growing body, kids in this group still require considerably more rest than adults.

Without adequate rest the brain is less capable of understanding complex concepts and mechanisms involved in retaining information are also impaired. While we sleep, our brains process and consolidate the information that is absorbed throughout the day and create memories which can be recalled later. This is part of the process of learning, which requires adequate sleep to function.

In the BBC article covering the survey, Dr. Karrie Fitzpatrick mentions that when a reversal is made, wherein students begin receiving the recommended of 7 to 9-1/2 hours of sleep per night, that they can most likely reverse the learning setbacks and begin improving skills. Fitzpatrick was quoted as saying, “As long you haven’t gone into extreme sleep deprivation, if you go back to seven to nine hours per night, as long as there has been no permanent damage, you can probably restore the functionality of accumulating, processing and being able to recall memories,”

Getting Students to Sleep Better

Although adolescents need the a lot of sleep, they are the group most likely to want to avoid rest in favor of friends, games, hobbies and other activities. To top it off, many adolescents also become biological night owls due to the “delayed sleep phase” affect which shifts circadian rhythms and contributes to later sleep and wake times. Since many schools have early start times, this can mean teens end up with little sleep, and can become a point of contention for parents.

So how are you supposed to make sure your student gets the sleep they need to do well in school and stay healthy? Here are a few healthy habits and tips that may help:

Unplug & Disconnect

Electronics were continually mentioned by researchers as a key cause of sleep loss and distraction among adolescents. In addition to keeping their minds busy, bright screens can actually interfere with circadian rhythms and further delay sleep. One way to combat this may be to institute a “disconnect rule” an hour or more before bed, during which cell phones, laptops, tablets and TVs are turned off. Reading a book or magazine, writing in a journal, or sketching could all be suggested instead to wind down.

Good Nutrition

Nutrition is also mentioned in the study as having an effect on academic performance. Adolescents often drink pop or eat highly processed foods that don’t provide their bodies with the vitamins they need, and excess sugar and caffeine can keep them wired longer.  Pay attention to daytime nutrition, and keep healthy snacks around that kids can grab if they get hungry after dinner. Some sleep-friendly munchies include low-sugar yogurt, a small turkey sandwich, celery and peanut butter, fruit and nut trail mix and other protein-rich items.

Stress Management

Stress can be a cause of sleep loss for anyone, but seems to have a high impact on students. Between school and social pressures, stress levels can be high for many teens and adolescents. Discuss ways to reduce stress overload (talking, exercise, developing social and coping skills, and positive self-talk are a few mentioned by the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry). Teaching them time management skills like scheduling homework and prioritizing tasks can also help students go to bed with a clear mind.

Comfortable Sleep Environment

For anyone, a comfortable bedroom can make all the difference to sleep quality. Make sure their room is comfortable to them, including noise levels, lighting, bedding, as well as their mattress.

Light blocking shades or noise-canceling headphones can help light sleepers, and a supportive mattress can reduce tossing and turning. Children grow quickly and a bed that fit them a couple years ago may no longer meet their needs.

See also our guides to the best mattresses for growing children and older teens:

Explain Benefits of Sleep

Older kids and teens often don’t want to do what their caregivers say is “good” for them, but for some personalities, it may be helpful to explain why sleep is so important and why they need it. Target the things important to your student – like improving grades, staying fit, staying healthy, keeping skin looking clear and healthy, safer driving, etc, and point out relevant role models or celebrities that mention good sleep habits. Modeling good sleep habits as a family can also be helpful in reducing resistance.

Sleep deprivation is a leading cause of vehicle accidents, illnesses and even depression, all of which affect Americans of all ages, but especially adolescents since as many as 4/5 aren’t sleeping enough, as highlighted in the above survey. A lack of rest can have significant affects on mental and physical health, making healthy sleep hygiene a crucial habit to instill in kids and teens.

Most parents are well aware of how important sleep is for their children, but as many as 63% of U.S. adults are also sleep deprived according to the National Sleep Foundation, so many parents may benefit from learning about better habits as well! By being aware of the issues and paying closer attention to sleep habits, especially electronic usage, we can all start reversing the trend and work towards a more well-rested country.

Christine Lapp is a full-time graduate student and part-time freelancer for Sleep Junkie. Since she was a little girl on the soccer field, Christine has had a love for sports, and she believes everybody should get up and get moving once a day. Now, she incorporates her love for exercise into her studies, pursuing a degree in exercise physiology. Christine understands that what you do during your waking hours has a direct impact on your night’s sleep. In our better sleep guides, she offers advice for developing healthy daytime habits to nurture a more peaceful slumber.

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