It was the fall of 2015, and Lisa Lewis’ son had just begun his freshman year of high school. The family was prepared for the various challenges that a demanding school schedule usually brings and for the inevitable adjustment to a new school. What they weren’t prepared for was a thorny problem, one that was woven right into the fabric of high school life.
The local high school began classes at 7:30 each morning, a time that was, “not an easy fit,” according to Lewis. Pretty quickly, it became apparent that her son was sleep deprived, struggling to keep up with his assignments, responsibilities, and a sleep schedule that allowed him to get the cognitive support adolescents need during these years of crucial growth. “So, of course, I started looking into it,” says Lewis, “I put on my reporter hat and tried to figure out why our school does start at 7:30. What I quickly realized was this was not just our school or our community, this was a much larger issue.”
Also in 2015, the CDC released a report on nationwide school start times, stating that “fewer than 1 in 5 middle and high schools in the U.S. began the school day at the recommended 8:30 a.m. start time or later during the 2011-2012 school year.” That recommended start time was (and remains) based on a policy report issued by the American Academy of Pediatrics in 2014. The AAP’s statement relies on studies that have shown a shift in circadian rhythm among adolescents. As it turns out, despite popular wisdom, teens need a minimum of eight hours of sleep each night. They’d do better with nine or ten hours, actually, and their minds aren’t primed for any kind of learning at 7:30 a.m. Or earlier, as many high schools’ schedules still require.
In exploring why her son had to get up so early each morning, Lewis had uncovered the tip of what turned out to be a massive iceberg of mindblowing data. She would go on to write an Op-Ed in the LA Times, which would be seen by a state senator whose daughter was also a perpetually groggy high schooler. The senator would co-sponsor a bill with an organization called Start School Later in 2017, which would be signed into law in October of 2018 by Governor Gavin Newsom after many long months of advocacy, testimony, research, and lobbying. As of this writing, the bill in question has been in effect for 13 days.
While this sounds like a wildly successful story, there remains much to be done in order to get our teens the sleep they need. That’s why Lewis went ahead and turned her huge pile of research into a clear, engaging book which, frankly, I think should be sent to every lawmaker in America. The Sleep-Deprived Teen is overflowing with facts and figures, but these are relayed in a sensitive, people-centric way. What stays with the reader is the stories of the teens themselves who have been harmed by chronic sleep deprivation. These are motivated, good kids who are trying to do their best in a system that is built to put stumbling blocks before them.
The book itself is methodical and well-organized, taking the reader through the history of school schedules and attitudes towards sleep all the way to modern concerns. Lewis dedicates each chapter to a specific challenge of adolescent life and the ways in which sleep deprivation interacts with it. Chapters such as Not All Teens Sleep the Same and Sleepwalking Through School address how sleep intersects with other elements of a teen’s identity (sexuality, gender, race, ethnicity, class, and neurodiversity). Other chapters, like Teens and Drowsy Driving and Sleep and Mental Health, delve into dire dangers presented by a population of young people who aren’t sleeping enough.
Anyone who has ever been or interacted with a teenager knows that they’re not known for being the most levelheaded bunch — they simply don’t have the prefrontal cortex development for it. Sleep is key to brain development, hormonal regulation, and more. Without enough rest, our teens are more likely to be in mortal danger; better sleep has been connected with less traffic deaths, less substance abuse, and less sports injuries.
“As a parent, one of the things that was the most unsettling was the mental health information,” says Lewis, “particularly the link between sleep and suicide. I had not looked at that in depth before this, and it’s literally what they call a dose-dependent relationship. So the less sleep our teens get, the more their suicide risk goes up. You know, our school started at 7:30, which is early, but there are schools that start earlier than that. In Louisiana, for example, the average start time is 7:30. So there are plenty of schools starting before that, too. According to one report, only 17.5% of the high schools are starting at 8:30 or later.”
To be honest, adults don’t appreciate how important sleep is either. How many of us have stayed up late to get something done or binge a show, thinking that we’d have another cup of coffee in the morning? I know I have. Truthfully, there often aren’t much better choices. When midnight is the only quiet moment I have to myself all day, sometimes I’ll stay up later to enjoy it. Especially in these pandemic times, getting a solid night’s sleep is a challenge. Lewis acknowledges this difficulty, all the while remaining focused on the additional challenges that teens face: Developmental shifts, overpacked schedules, social pressures, and more. “They’re functioning despite not getting enough sleep,” says Lewis, “and it’s very detrimental to their wellbeing. Something like 80% of teens consume caffeine, which does help, but can also make it difficult to fall asleep that night. At that point, they’re caught in a loop.”
The Sleep-Deprived Teen is a book for anyone who has a sleepy teen in their life or who has been a sleepy teen themselves. Lewis combines the clarity of a seasoned journalist and the storytelling skills of a narrative writer to create an extensive and fascinating resource for parents and policymakers alike. With summaries at the end of each chapter and actionable case studies, it’s easy to navigate and enjoy regardless of one’s level of experience in the realm.
Lisa Lewis’ new book is The Sleep Deprived Teen: Why Our Teens Are So Tired, and How Parents and Schools Can Help Them Thrive. More of her work is at www.lisallewis.com.