You see them dragging themselves late to first period, draped in comfy sweats that may have been slept in, clutching a Starbucks’ Venti Macchiato, sleep still in their eyes. But they are wide awake doing homework or watching TV at midnight, long after experts say they should be in bed to get the recommended hours of sleep.
According to national and Mirada surveys, they are pretty typical teens.
A Mirada survey of 94 juniors and seniors found that Rio students are likely to sleep at rates comparable to teenagers nationally, which are generally below the 8 1/2 to 9 1/4 hours per night recommended by the National Sleep Foundation. The survey also found that students taking AP courses were more likely to sleep less than those in traditional courses.
Junior Sydney Ford takes three AP classes, plays basketball and soccer, and sleeps “maybe 7 hours, if lucky.”
Typical of many high achieving students, she said that she needs to stay ahead of the curve if she is going to succeed in life. “I need to stay up to study and finish homework,” Ford said. “Sometimes college is so competitive and I want to get into the right college, leave Sacramento, and start living independently.”
Overall, on the average school night, 16 percent of the students surveyed sleep less than 6 hours per night, 21 percent sleep approximately 6 hours per night, 37 percent sleep approximately 7 hours per night, 20 percent sleep approximately eight hours per night, and six percent sleep approximately nine hours per night.
According to a 2011 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study, only 31.4 percent of students nationally slept eight or more hours per night compared with 26 percent of the Rio students surveyed. According to the same survey, only 7.5 percent of students nationally obtained “optimal sleep” (9 or more hours a night for teenagers) compared to 6 percent for the Rio students surveyed.
Given these numbers, it’s no surprise that researchers in the science journal Developmental Neuroscience said in 2009 that “sleep deprivation among adolescents is epidemic.”
At Rio 57 percent of students said that homework was a contributing factor to their not sleeping enough, 48 percent listed internet surfing and social media, 11 percent listed sports and 24 percent said that they just weren’t tired early enough. (Students could list multiple causes for lack of sleep so the percentages do not add up to 100 percent.)
Junior Devyn Swift blames the pull of social media and electronics for her lack of sleep.
“I’m on the phone or talking to people,” Swift said. “I don’t sleep way more because of texting and calling than because of homework. It doesn’t matter how much I manage my time I would still want to stay up and talk to people and do what I do.”
One habit scientists say would help increase the quality and quantity of sleep is going to bed and waking up at the same time every night, regardless of the day of the week. Yet 83 percent of the Rio students surveyed said they go to bed later on Fridays and Saturdays then on school nights.
The 2011 CDC study linked sleep debt in teens with risky behavior, saying that teens who reported not getting sufficient sleep were 86 percent more likely to have seriously considered suicide, 67 percent more likely to smoke cigarettes, 52 percent more likely to use marijuana, and 41 percent more likely to engage in sexual activity.
Researchers have also linked sleep debt in teens with impaired ability to learn, depression and anxiety, excessive weight gain, decreased athletic skills, and increased risk of cardiovascular disease and diabetes.
A problem for AP students
The Mirada survey also found that students enrolled in AP courses are more likely to sleep less than those in non-honors courses, more likely to attribute losing sleep to homework, and more likely to report feeling worried too much in the past several months.
About 29 percent of AP students, a plurality, reported sleeping less than 6 hours per night, compared to only 6 percent of traditional students. While 33 percent of traditional students sleep 8 hours or more per night, only 18 percent of the AP students do.
There seems to be a consensus that the high demands put on AP students to be admitted to their dream university is a main cause of this discrepancy, especially when coupled with the fact that AP students often add on Civitas, sports and other extracurricular activities.
Counselor Chris Brownfield said that AP students spend less time sleeping and more time doing homework because of the pressures of their high standards.
“The AP students feel more pressured than the other students in the survey and that pressure can be imposed by others: parents, teachers, colleges, or it could be self imposed,” Brownfield said. “I think that the pressure would be to stay up later to study more as a way to deal with the stress.”
One junior who isn’t sleeping enough is Ben Harouni, who juggles Civitas and multiple AP classes while sleeping only about 6 hours on school nights.
“I don’t feel like any of the advanced students get enough of the sleep they need,” Harouni said. “They’re giving up health for grades and it’s not a good exchange.”
When asked about why he makes the sacrifice, Harouni said “I want to be the well rounded student that gets into a good college like a U.C. It’s a necessary thing to do.”
Junior Arianna Sue takes five AP classes, is on varsity cheer, and is the President of the Rio Americano Young Democrats.
“I think students enrolled in honors and AP classes receive more homework,” Sue said. “They put in more effort and understand the time they put in is reflected in the quality of their work. They need more time to be successful.”
Cheer coach Demeris Athey said that she notices the exhaustion that her busy cheerleaders face.
“We have quite a few high achieving cheerleaders,” Athey said. “I do see them sometimes get completely burnt out. Trying to juggle practice, community service, and games with the expectations of those classes strains kids. There’s a fatigue about them.”
Athey said that the workload has increased from what she remembers when she was a cheerleader in high school.
“When I was in high school, homework didn’t compare to what students are given now,” she said. “I don’t remember having half of what you have. The demands weren’t what they are now.”
The survey found that while only 45 percent of traditional students listed homework as a cause of not sleeping the recommended hours, 80 percent of AP students did.
But while Harouni and Athey agree that many AP students are burnt out, they don’t necessarily agree that less homework is the solution.
“If teachers take more advantage of their class time, students could be more productive,” Harouni said. “I’d say 65 to 70 percent of homework is busy work and people just want to sleep when they get home.”
Athey said that students should be educated before they get to high school on the impact of sleep on academic performance.
“They feel an all nighter will make them do better, but sometimes sleep will,” Athey said. “How much you sleep is a choice and who’s to say that, if they didn’t have homework to do, they wouldn’t be up until two in the morning playing video games?”
Effects on mood
Perhaps the most telling number revealed by the Mirada survey was that while only 15 percent of students in traditional courses reported feeling “hopeless about the future” in the past several months, 36 percent of the AP students reported feeling that way.
The fact that AP students generally get less sleep may have something to do with it. The 2011 CDC study found a connection between depression and insufficient sleep.
Students themselves have a variety of explanations.
“We know enough to realize that it’s going to be so much more difficult to be successful than we thought it would be,” said senior Ramsey Karim, who is in three AP classes and band. “Getting into college is difficult, getting a good job that pays well is difficult. We know that because we’re AP students and that, I think, is the tragic irony.”
Arianna Sue echoed that sentiment. “I think students taking these courses understand the weight and severity of the decisions they make,” she said. “One test can affect your grade which can affect your GPA which affects your chances of getting into a good college. For AP kids, it’s magnified ten times what it’s like for others because they understand cause and effect a lot more.”
Brownfield thinks the hopelessness is related to the extra pressures put on AP students. “It has to do with pressure,” she said. “Sometimes high achieving students feel as if they’re never doing enough, which can contribute to feeling hopeless. If you believe you’re never doing enough, you’re never feeling satisfied.”