Corey Brickley for Quanta Magazine
Corey Brickley for Quanta Magazine

The epidemic of sleep deprivation

November 5, 2021

The tranquil of the night draws out as hours pass, streets are quiet aside from the occasional cars hurrying to get home. You look up wearily from the brightness of the screen, squinting to check the clock as it strikes 1 A.M. Your phone remains dark; everyone must have gone to bed by now.

The open tabs on the computer shrink in size, practically mocking as they await the conclusion of your assignment. But there’s much work to be done and such little time. Before you know it, the alarm for classes will go off.

You look back to the keyboard, eyes burning from strain and head heavy from lectures all day. Still, you resume typing and pray that sleep won’t take over.

This reality is quite prevalent in the lives of both teenagers and adults, and it is one that comes with consequence. Everyday, people from all around the world find themselves struggling to meet the expectations of society, resulting in the drastic mind bog and exhaustion throughout the day.

Although sleep deprivation is an issue with several faces, the prioritization of education for both students and teachers poses as it’s biggest influence, pushing forward the inevitable effects which lead to psychological and physical depletion.

Sleep Deterioration Analysis:

Just how much sleep are we missing out on in general? According to Sleep Foundation, over 57% of middle school students and 72% of high school students are not getting the recommended amount of sleep for their age with “as many as 23.8% of adolescents, the problem is significant enough to be considered insomnia, a serious sleep disorder that involves noticeable daytime impairment.”

While on the other hand Ball State University found that “43% of teachers often sleep less than 6 hours each night. On top of that, around 64% of educators felt drowsy during school hours.”

These appalling statistics, which show the lack of sleep present in hundreds of individuals’ lives, display the significance of the problem. With so many people deprived of one of the most crucial factors in functioning, there will evidently be negative effects in all aspects of daily life.

Aside from exhaustion, there are several other components which stem from insufficient sleep, including poor mental health, physical depletion, and social burn-out.

Sleep Foundation indicates that “Insufficient sleep can affect attention and in one study was associated with levels of hyperactive behavior reported by teachers. Sleeping problems may exacerbate the symptoms of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).”

Noticeably, there is a serious number of cases regarding these several issues in both younger and older generations today, and it is appropriate to say this has a correlation with sleep deprivation. More prevalent among the victims of this epidemic are students and teachers worldwide.

Student Life Drainage:

Academic recognition is one of the most strived for achievements in society today. With college acceptance and job opportunities both at risk, students find themselves succumbing to the pressures of school standards established.

We see young people on the train rushing to complete their assignments or sitting in a coffee shop, pondering with their laptop screen wide open. Everywhere we go, stress is written all over the faces of these students who have devoted their lives to achieve a perfect record.

Many research foundations have taken notice of this revolvement around academics and found that a majority of the individuals who are reporting to have a lack of sleep are influenced by the demanding systems of schools.

Better Sleep had indicated that “Seventy-nine percent reported getting 7 hours of sleep or less on a typical school night, more than two-thirds (67%) say they only get 5 to 7 hours of sleep on a school night, and only about one in five teens is getting 8 hours of sleep or more.”

This correlation between school days and sleep patterns experienced by students signifies the impact one has on the other. With students handling the responsibility of not only completing their school work, but also keeping up with extracurriculars and friends, it is obvious that sleep would be a factor set aside.

According to Stanford Research, “With academic demands and extracurricular activities, the kids are going nonstop until they fall asleep exhausted at night. There is not an emphasis on the importance of sleep, as there is with nutrition and exercise. They would rather give up sleep than give up an activity.”

This detail is very predictable if we examine the paths students today are forced to follow. The high expectations and emphasis on education is blurring their view on other aspects of life, such as sleep, which is just as crucial to maintain. It is important to allow students to get a bigger perspective on life and open their eyes to the reality of the world which does not, in fact, depend on your educational platform.

Now that we have examined the statistics, let’s get a first-hand perspective from students who surround us that also recognize themselves as being impacted by sleep deprivation.

Kadiza Aktar, a sophomore at iSchool, had brought up the various points in her life where she struggled to prioritize sufficient rest and relationships ahead of school work, stating: “I think that sleep deprivation, quite obviously, makes it harder to balance other things going on in your life. For me, because I’m so tired on a day to day basis, I struggle to have the motivation to do my work or to hang out with friends, which just shows how that one tiny aspect can do a lot in terms of your lifestyle.”

This circumstance is one which is faced by many students as they face serious fatigue throughout the day from the amount of energy inputted into both school work and completing general tasks. Our society expects that students immerse themselves in academics. However, it is an indirect cause towards the numerous problems we have collectively.

One of the more complex effects sleep deprivation has on young people today is the depletion of mental health. Sleep is a critical part in upholding a good psychological state, helping individuals avoid it’s burdening symptoms such as anxiety and fluctuating emotions. However, with its loss, people are more vulnerable to these issues.

According to Stanford Research, “Sleep deprivation increases the likelihood teens will suffer myriad negative consequences, including an inability to concentrate, poor grades, drowsy-driving incidents, anxiety, depression, thoughts of suicide and even suicide attempts.”

This particular result of sleep deprivation is one which is widely overlooked as many individuals find connecting sleep to their mental state far-fetched. Nevertheless, these effects will continue to cloud the minds of students and drain out their stability.

Afirina, a junior attending High School of Health Professions and Human Services, exclaimed, “I have insomnia so I think that it really affects my health because it led to my depression and other problems like weight loss and dizziness or fainting.”

Busy with studying for the SAT and simultaneously attending workshops and internships, Afirina finds herself caving in and left to handle these hardships due to the overwhelming presence school has on her life. It is unfortunate to say this is the case for much of the younger generations in society today.

Taking into consideration the stress and mental exhaustion sleep deprivation generates, it is inevitable for the issue to take a toll on grades as well. With students thrown off course with lack of sleep, the classroom environments may lead to disruptive behaviors or lack of concentration.

Sleep Foundation acknowledges this risk, stating, “Sleep provides a time for memory encoding, which is when the brain stores and strengthens the recollection of an image or thought. Without adequate sleep, memories may not be properly formed, and it may also be more difficult to accurately recall stored information.”

Therefore, piling lack of focus on top of the several other factors sleep deprivation poses, students may find it difficult to attain a proper education. Despite spending long hours into the day reviewing assignments, grades may continue to decrease so long as individuals do not attain sufficient rest for the day, rendering these energy deprived nights useless.

Afirina had also shared her personal complications regarding concentration in her classes, stating, “During long lectures I don’t pay attention and put my head down, so when the class is over and we get homework, half the time I don’t know what to do due to my lack of sleep.”

However, this widespread concern does not only branch from educational prioritization by students, but also from the overly extensive amount of work some teachers assign. Compared to past years, it is baffling how many assignments some schools feel necessary to give on a daily basis.

In order to lessen the impact educators and the school system has on sleep deprivation present in the lives of students, iSchool math teacher Mr. Reeder suggests: “I think it’s important for teachers to generally take a look at what they’re asking students to do and consider that there’s other work because there’s only so many hours in a day.”

Taking this step, we can help to ensure students a comfortable learning environment where they are not continuously forced to go above their capabilities. We can successfully manage their achievements while keeping physical and mental health in check. This can be positive to not only student sleep, but also the amount of work left for teachers to handle as well.

Sacrifices Made By Educators:

The younger generations aren’t the only ones suffering from this seemingly inescapable problem.
Many believe that teachers are available to an effortless working schedule, having to work less hours than the typical 9-5.

This assumption is untrue in most circumstances. Just because the dismissal bell might ring at 3:20 does not mean that teachers have the privilege to leave as well. Many are found to be helping students during office hours, grading work, creating lesson plans, and attending school meetings long after students have gone.

Along with responsibilities at work, teachers must also go back to their home life and adjust to the environment, switching to parent mode. Ms. Gray, who has been teaching English at the iSchool for 8 years, is one of the many educators who finds herself facing challenges both in school and home regarding sleep maintenance.

Her child and work is of much importance to her, allowing her to exclaim: “My own health and sleep sort of necessarily comes after those two things (work and children) because I think that I have an ethical responsibility to do my job and to the best of my ability and finish my work and I also have to keep my child alive.”

This collective mindset established by teachers, which prioritize work instead of well-being, is one of the main aspects towards why classroom environments are at risk for being unsteady. With teachers experiencing sleep deprivation, there are no positive aspects towards themselves or their own students.

Due to this, several teachers find themselves turning to the option of caffeine to get through the day. Ms. Gray had admitted, “Very often I find myself relying on lots of coffee to kind of keep myself focused during the day because I’m so tired and that makes me feel a little bit forgetful or jittery or just not at my peak.”

When there’s no coffee available, Ms. Gray finds herself to be more prone to having mood swings, stating: “When I’m sleep deprived, I am much more on edge so something will set me off either to get sad or angry pretty quickly.”

According to Consilium Education, Ms. Gray is not alone when it comes to emotional instability due to sleep deprivation, stating, “When you don’t get enough sleep, the amygdala in your brain, which is responsible for emotional regulation, struggles to perform.”

This aspect regarding emotional health is more significant than others may realize. In order for the classroom to maintain a proper and comfortable state, teachers themselves must also be healthy and cautious. This will allow lessons to go smoothly and at the end of the day, decrease the workload teachers may find themselves with when unfocused.

The pandemic is also another factor Ms. Gray believes to cause such high levels of sleep
deprivation in all ages. Virtual learning was not a pleasant time for both students and teachers, making an already stressful period even more burdensome.

She has stated, “I think that the pandemic in particular disrupted everyone’s normal schedules, and I think a lot of people are struggling to return to their usual routine of sleeping at night and working and going to school during the day.”

All across the world, adults became accustomed to waking up at home and easily accessing their computer to work and virtually discuss with their students. Preparations and hands-on activities were not available, making schedules more minimized and simple. However, the new school year opened up a stressful path for educators to meet requirements of in-person teaching again.

This draining issue is found to be prevalent amongst many educators aside from Ms. Gray as well. There are countless teachers at the iSchool who have experienced the side-effects of sleep deprivation in their classrooms many times a week, including Mr. Reeder.

Mr. Reeder points out that he is not essentially sleep deprived, but has definitely experienced this problem earlier on in his life, stating,“When I was in college I was working a part time job and student teaching and I was going to school at the same time, so I think I got 4 to 5 hours of sleep a night and those are not times I look back at fondly.”

Circumstances such as these, where individuals find themselves too preoccupied with fulfilling their daily necessities, well rest becomes a factor which is hard to obtain. The older you get, the more responsibilities come your way, thus making it hard to maintain everything in your life.

Stanford Research stated, “When people were restricted to just five hours of sleep a night, they would become progressively sleepier during the course of the week. The loss was cumulative, accounting for what is now commonly known as sleep debt.”

This presence of sleep debt had unfortunately correlated to Mr. Reeder’s harmful experience which nearly cost him his own life. He mentioned, “I would fall asleep during class and I even fell asleep driving once.”

This terrifying situation which is fairly common for those who lack sleep shows just how much damage the cycle of sleep deprivation can bring upon burned out people. No matter the amount of rest achieved, people will continuously be affected by sleep deprivation unless change is made.

Mr. Reeder also made clear that many people undermine the consequences of sleep deprivation in people’s social lives, suggesting that, “Not only academically are you suffering, but also emotionally like with your friends you may be a little short.” This implies that the effects lack of sleep has on individuals not only branch into your academics, but also your social state.

He continues saying,“Emotions are very fickle, one moment you feel one way and something happens and then you feel the complete opposite, so just by their nature emotions change and I feel like sleep deprivation on top of that makes a bad situation worse.”

By viewing the perspectives of teachers and their relations to sleep deprivation, we can understand that not only are they putting their physical health on the line, but significant aspects like social life and emotions are being unbalanced and brushed off. This overall has a negative impact on the effectiveness teachers can have both in life and with student relationships.

We as people must understand that the effects of sleep deprivation can and will tarnish both students and teachers efforts, and ability to contribute effectively in a classroom environment.

What’s the Cure?

The effects of sleep deprivation are not a problem that can be easily reversed as people may think. Hundreds of young adults and older individuals struggle to find a balanced method where they can keep track of both sleep and work. However, if we input enough motivation and understanding towards this issue, over time, sleep deprivation rates may decrease.

For starters, people of all ages should create a fixed schedule that does not place other “mandatory” activities in their life ahead of well-being. Instead of prioritizing work, we should be aware of our utilization of time and productivity throughout the day. No matter how much work is inputted, rest is the factor that can ensure both success and health. This vital step in reevaluating our priorities can help create a consistency where we acknowledge the importance of sleep.

Not only this, but it is also significant for our educational systems to recognize the pressure being put upon students, specifically with their expectations. By having young individuals misjudge the value of sleep, we are jeopardizing their grades and mental/social status.

In order to do so, school administrations must assess their policies, such as the amount of homework being assigned and how class time is being used. Both students and teachers have other responsibilities aside from academics and working all day. And so, we must consider these aspects before setting an unrealistic standard for them to meet.

Just as Afirina stated, “Obviously doing work is important, but knowing when there is a limit and when to go to sleep to prepare for tomorrow and being able to actually pay attention is just as crucial.”

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