Honors Classes May Endanger Your Health

Emily Hahn and Sophia Hill

Most Americans do not receive optimal hours of sleep, and studies have shown that teenagers are most likely to fall short on their Z’s compared to other age groups. This is alarming, because sleep deprivation can have profound negative effects on teenagers’ health and academic potential. We conducted a survey of 159 middle and high school students to identify teenagers who are sleep deprived to ascertain possible causes of sleep deprivation and propose potential solutions.

The participants of the survey supported the claim that most teenagers do not receive adequate sleep. Sleep experts consider a minimum of 9 hours of sleep per night as appropriate for teenagers. 92.5% of students surveyed reported getting 8 or fewer hours of sleep, and 36.5% received 6 hours or less. The survey also showed that students suffer from negative effects of sleep deprivation, with 72.9% of students having trouble getting up in the morning, and about half the students feeling frequently tired and irritable.

It was thought that the problem with sleep deprivation in teenagers might be due to the lack of knowledge of the importance of sleep. Asking students about their attitude towards sleep tested this hypothesis. 27.7% believed that sleep was a luxury, not a necessity, and a great number of students (92.5%) were actually sleep deprived. This data showed that the lack of knowledge was not the sole reason for sleep deprivation. However, considering that about of a quarter of the students were not informed about the importance of sleep, education may help these students.

The survey also demonstrated that sleep deprivation was worse for older students. The number of hours of sleep received by middle school students was more than high school students. In addition, the majority of the participants believed they were receiving less sleep than the previous year. The study attempted to identify factors that changed as the students got older that may contribute to the decrease in sleep.

Surprisingly, the amount of hours spent on homework changed only slightly as the students entered high school. In fact, older high school students spent slightly less time than younger high school students on homework. Although the increase in the time spent on homework from middle school to high school can be explained by increased workload given by high school teachers, the decrease in time spent on schoolwork by older high school students is more difficult to explain. Perhaps older teenagers became more efficient, or switched their priority from school to other activities. In any case, the increase in sleep deprivation in older teenagers cannot be solely explained by increased schoolwork.

Similarly, the time spent in extracurricular activities did not appear to contribute greatly to the increase in sleep deprivation in older teenagers. Although there was a slight increase in hours participating in sports and clubs when entering high school, older high school students decreased the amount of time spent in extracurricular activities. The reason for the variation may be due to lack of enthusiasm for school activities by older students, or development of interests outside of school. In any case, although participation in extracurricular activities may contribute to sleep deprivation in all students, it does not explain the increased problem among older students.

On the other hand, there was a large increase in the hours older students spent on electronic devices, suggesting that this may be a more important factor.   It is possible that older students are more engaged with electronic devices, especially with social media. It is also possible that older students have more difficult time falling asleep, and may use electronic devices to occupy their time while trying to fall asleep. In other words, the increased time on electronic devices by older students may not be the cause of sleep deprivation, but is the result of not being able to fall asleep. As indicated by some sleep experts, teenagers may have difficulties falling asleep and adapting to early school start times due to their natural circadian rhythms. If this is the case, school administrators changing school opening times may improve sleep deprivation in teenagers.

Perhaps the most important finding in the survey was the comparison between students taking no or one advanced class and students enrolled in two or more advanced classes. While there was only a slight variation in the number of hours of homework spent by students of different ages, there was a larger difference between students taking different levels of classes. The students taking two or more advanced classes were sleeping significantly less, with the time lost from sleeping roughly equaling the extra time spent on homework. It would be logical that students taking more advanced classes are more efficient, being able to complete more difficult homework quicker than students enrolled in regular classes. However if they are sacrificing sleep to be able to complete the extra homework, students taking advanced classes are endangering their health. In addition, these students may be developing a bad habit that may continue into college and adulthood.

In conclusion, the survey supports the belief that teenagers do not receive enough sleep and suffer from problems of sleep deprivation. One of the solutions may be to educate students in the importance of sleep. It may also be helpful to delay school opening times. Most importantly, controlling the number of advanced classes students take may reduce sleep deprivation.