There are so many more things I get to worry about now that my son is entering adolescence. But one important question I haven’t really considered is whether he’s getting enough sleep.
He probably isn’t if he’s a typical American adolescent.
He should be getting 9.25 hours but I know he's not. Lack of adequate sleep among teens is rampant, and it’s becoming a major concern among public health and safety experts.
I recently started working with Lafayette filmmaker Vicki Abeles. Her education documentary Race to Nowhere has been showing in communities throughout the country, including in Walnut Creek. I was the parent education coordinator for Walnut Creek Intermediate and helped organize a fall 2010 screening at Las Lomas High School,
Race to Nowhere provoked quite a discussion that night among parents, teachers, administrator and students in the audience. The film spotlights what Abeles calls the toxic culture of achievement that has become the norm in America’s education culture – and this culture's unintended health consequences for children.
A major consequence is sleep deprivation. While making the documentary, she interviewed teenagers who were seriously skimping on sleep as they juggled homework, extracurricular activities, prepping for tests and gearing up for a grueling college admissions process.
Teens also have trouble sleeping because they, like the rest of us, have become avid consumers of coffee-house lattes and other caffeinated beverages and because they have gotten so plugged into technology. They stay up late surfing the Web, text messaging or playing games.
A 2010 study by University of Missouri education researchers found that 85 percent of adolescents suffer from sleep deprivation. Another study, reported in the Journal of Adolescent Health, found that only 8 percent of teens get the recommended 9.25 hours of sleep; nearly 70 percent receive seven hours or less.
Unfortunately, sleep loss undermines academic achievement and feeds anxiety, depression, suicidal thinking, poor impulse control, alcohol and other drug use and other risky behavior.
Speaking of alcohol use, I, like most parents worry about how my son will start going out with friends. And, there will be drinking. And, then he and the others could get into a car and the intoxicated young driver will crash it. Motor vehicle accidents remain the leading cause of death for teenagers.
But now, I’m learning that “drowsy driving” can be just as hazardous as drunk driving. Sleep loss leads to thousands of car crashes a year in the United States, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The highest risk group for drowsy driving accidents are young drivers, ages 16 to 29.
National Sleep Awareness Week was this week. To mark this occasion, Abeles invited physicians from around the country to view the film as part of a live, online stream. The American Pediatric Association encouraged its members to watch the film. More than 700 physicians have registered to watch it. They are also invited to take part in an online discussion.
Abeles and her Reel Link Films film company also launched a "Sleep Challenge."Abeles hopes it will encourage a cultural attitude adjustment around sleep. This week, the Harvard School of Public Health held a forum, inviting experts to talk about "sleep deprivation," the longterm risks for children and adults, and the policies that should be considered for schools and businesses to protect health.
On the Race to Nowhere site is a "sleep tool kit" that suggests ways for students, teachers, schools and parents to make changes in schedules, policies and lifestyles to make sleep more of a daily priority.
For students to try to get the recommended 9.25 hours per night, they can:
- Set a regular schedule for going to bed and waking up
- Eliminate caffeine intake after lunch time
- Turn off electronics at night or even removing them from the bedroom.
The tool kit suggests similar strategies for parents to “model good sleeping habits” for their children. We parents should be getting seven to nine hours of sleep at night.
Seven to nine hours of sleep a night? I typically get close to seven, but nine? To get seven, I have to say no to staying up late to work, write, surf the Web, watch old movies.
There is that mantra, "progress not perfection." It could certainly apply to my efforts around being a better sleep role model. But making progress would be worth it. The evidence is pretty convincing that we all need to sleep better.
Areas where I need to make progress? I need to cut back on caffeine, especially after lunchtime. It would also be good for me to rethink keeping my laptop on a nightstand next to my bed.
A challenge for our entire family, suggested by the Race to Nowhere sleep tool kit, would be to go technology free an hour before bedtime and avoiding all caffeinated drinks for an entire week.
Hmm, the technology-free hour is possible but no caffeine for a week?
Progress not perfection.
In addition to her work with Race to Nowhere, Martha Ross is the former editor for Walnut Creek Patch. A version of this post is published on her blog Crazyinsburbia.