HOW MUCH SLEEP DO TEENAGERS REALLY NEED,
AND WHAT ARE THE SHORT AND LONG TERM
EFFECTS OF NOT GETTING ENOUGH SLEEP?
Prepared for Ms. McQueen
By Jane Doe
May 3, 1999
Teachers have observed groggy high school students nodding off in their
classrooms for centuries. The introspective teacher asks, “Is it me, or are my students not
getting the sleep they need?” To determine if sleep deprivation is the cause of one’s
students drifting off, the inquisitive teacher must explore two issues. First, how much
sleep do teenagers really need; and second, what are the short and long term effects of not
getting enough sleep? To discover answers to these questions, researchers have been
conducting experiments for the past fifty years. The most relevant results of these years
of research focus on:
• symptoms of sleep deprivation
• mental, physical, and emotional problems caused by inadequate amounts of
• accidents and disasters that can be linked to sleep deficits, and
• methods for effectively altering poor sleeping habits and insomnia.
Ninety percent of the public can determine their sleeping needs from the
Newborns . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 17-18 hours/day
4 year olds . . . . . . . . . .. 10-12 hours/day
10 year olds 9-10 hours/day
13-18 year olds 7 ½ hours/day
20-70 year olds 7 hours/day
People over 70 6-6 ½ hours/day
However, ten percent of the public are short sleepers or long sleepers and can be
perfectly healthy with much more or much less sleep. To determine if you are one of
these people who have substantially different sleep needs than the rest of the public, ask
yourself how you feel when you wake up during the day. If you generally feel rested and
ready to tackle whatever comes you way, you are getting an appropriate amount of sleep.
On the other hand, according to Dr. Maas who wrote the book Power Sleep, if
three or more of the following sentences describe you, there is a good chance you are
suffering from sleep deprivation.
I need an alarm clock to wake up.
It’s a struggle for me to get out of bed in the morning.
I feel tired, irritable, and stressed out during the week.
I have trouble concentrating.
I have trouble remembering things.
I feel slow at critical thinking, problem solving, and being creative.
I often fall asleep watching TV.
I find it hard to stay awake in boring meetings or lectures or warm rooms.
I often nod off after heavy meals or after a low dose of alcohol.
I often feel drowsy while driving.
I often sleep extra hours on weekend mornings.
I often need a nap to get through the day.
I often have dark circles under my eyes.
I’ve been drinking more coffee than usual.
I’m catching more colds or keeping colds longer than I usually do.
I fall asleep as soon as my head hits the pillow.
(“How to Tell” 1998:12)
Some people might want to argue over whether the above sentences truly indicate
a sleep deprivation problem. For example, many people believe it is totally
understandable that a person would fall asleep at a boring meeting. But according to Dr.
Maas, “the finger of blame is being pointed in the wrong direction. If you have had
adequate sleep, you might get fidgety or angry or bored or restless or uncomfortable, but
not sleepy” (“How to Tell” 1998:12). Likewise, again according to Dr. Maas,
Bragging that you fall asleep as soon as your head hits the pillow does not
necessarily show that you are in good health . . . . The well-rested person
takes 15 to 20 minutes to fall asleep. Think how ridiculous it would sound
to brag about being a good eater because you devour your meals the instant
they are put in front of you. Such behavior would be indicative of food de-
privation, not good nutrition (“How to Tell” 1998:12).
So suppose you or someone you know is not getting enough sleep. What’s the big
deal? Are the effects of sleep deprivation terribly significant? Yes, especially when
added together. Among the possible effects mentioned in research literature are a loss of
motivation (an I-just-don’t-care-attitude); additional depression, feelings of inferiority,
anxiety, and irritability; difficulty concentrating and forgetfulness; a loss of spontaneity,
flexibility, and originality (since a tired mind will stick to known ways of doing things);
lower exam scores (especially on essay exams and math exams); delusions and inaccurate
perceptions of reality; weight gain (since people tend to munch on food at random
intervals to keep themselves awake) or weight loss (since the body needs more energy to
get through each day); longer and more frequent illnesses; premature aging; temporary
paralysis; and even earlier death (Dotto 1990:155-157).
If you have doubts about some of the items on the above list, consider the
following bits of evidence.
• Typical comments by sleep-deprived shift workers include: “I used to hunt,
fish, and enjoy sport activities. I lost interest in everything . . . I could see
such a difference in my friends at work. People would go to the break area,
and no one would talk to each other; and if they did, it was something
negative about their work” (Dotto 1990:237).
• Teenagers often want to stay up late for fun or to cram the night before a
major exam, but several studies reveal that students with higher GPAs go to
bed earlier and wake up earlier on weekdays and weekends than students with
lower GPAs (Link). In fact, “even staying up for as little as 2 hours past their
normal bedtime could seriously affect how well they retain the information
learned that day” (Dotto 1990:160).
• Sleep-deprived doctors have exhibited “irritability, cynicism, and chronic
anger” (Dotto 1990:283). In addition, studies of sleep-deprived interns show
deficiencies in their mathematical skills, their ability to recognize abnormal
heart rhythms, and other difficulties with thinking, short-term memory, and
mood (Dotto 1990:282).
• Illnesses and aging increase with sleep deprivation because your body is too
busy coping with other problems to fight off disease (Kazi); and also, “one of
the major functions of sleep is to allow chemicals within the body to repair
cell damage and ward off infectious diseases” (Uddin).
• Night workers may also experience a kind of sleep paralysis in which “their
muscles become so rigid that they literally cannot move; in fact, it takes a lot
of effort for other people to move them. . . About 12% of nurses and 16% of
traffic controllers said they had experienced this condition” (Dotto 1990:233).
• Finally, a study done by the American Cancer Society found “men who slept
about 4 hours a night were 10 times more likely to have died . . . than those
who had slept between 7 and 8 hours a night” and “even people whose sleep
was only slightly off the average . . . had higher death rates” (Dotto
ACCIDENTS AND DISASTERS
The personal damage to individuals who do not get enough sleep is high. But far
worse is the harm they inflict on many other innocent people. Courts have now attributed
nuclear accidents like Chernobyl and Three Mile Island (Dotto 1990:18), space shuttle
accidents like the U.S. Challenger accident (Dotto 1990:246), airline accidents (Dotto
1990:17), car accidents (Dotto 1990:18), disastrous government decisions (Dotto
1990:276), and doctor-caused deaths (Dotto 1990:17) to sleep-deprivation. With regards
to car accidents alone, it is estimated that 13% of the annual total is caused by people
falling asleep at the wheel (Dotto 1990:74). Considering the cost in dollars and lives of
all these accidents, all people should try to get an appropriate amount of sleep. If they are
unwilling to do it for themselves, they should do it for innocent others.
ALTERING SLEEP HABITS
Some people will complain it’s impossible for them to go to sleep earlier because
when they try to they just lie in bed awake. But according to Mortimer Mamelak,
director of the Sleep Disorders Centre at Sunnybrook Hospital in Toronto, strange sleep
habits are just that—habits that can be altered if the person needs to or wants to.
“Perseverance is necessary to defeat poor sleep habits,” but it can be done, especially if
you cut down on caffeine, smoking, chocolate, and alcohol (Dotto 1990:74). Why
alcohol? Even in moderate doses “alcohol can cause ‘rebound insomnia,’ in which you
fall asleep easily but wake up a short time later and lie awake” (“Are You Getting
Most teenagers need 7 to 7 ½ hours of sleep a night. Getting less than that will
hurt their grades, their moods, and their health, and may also hurt innocent people around
them. To give themselves a better chance at success and to be socially responsible, all
people need to carefully evaluate if they are sleep-deprived. If the answer is “yes,” sleep
habits should be changed. Don’t just continue to nod off in class or consume record-
breaking amounts of caffeine. Instead enjoy the restorative properties of a nice, long,
dream-filled night of sleep.
“Are You Getting Enough Sleep?” Health Beat. http://www.hslib.washington.edu/your_health/
hbeat/hb960305.html (31 Mar. 1999).
Dotto, Lydia. Losing Sleep: How Your Sleeping Habits Affect Your Life. New York:
William Morrow and Company, 1990.
Gayman, Tara. “Sleep Deprivation.”
http://www.andrew.cmu.edu/course/85-102/student_work/gayman.html (31 Mar. 1999).
Gorman, Christine. “Get Some Sleep.” Time. 29 Mar. 1999: 225.
“How to Tell If You’re Not Getting Enough Sleep.” Jet. 2 Mar. 1998: 12.
Kazi, Zaheer. “Sleep Deprivation.” http://www.cs.hmc.edu/~zkazi/sleepdep.html (31 Mar.
Lamberg, Lynne. “Knitting Up the Raveled Sleave of Care: Role of Sleep and Effects of
Its Lack Examined.” Journal of the American Medical Association. 16 Oct.
Link, Stacie C. and Ancoli-Israel, Sonia. “Sleep and the Teenager.”
http://bisleep.medsch.ucla.edu/WFSRS/abstracts/htdocs/ab100.html (31 Mar. 1999).
“Sleep Deprivation.” http://www.kron.com/nc4/healthbeat/stories/sleep.html (31 Mar. 1999).
“Sleep Disorders.” http://www.mhsource.com/hy/sleep.html (31 Mar. 1999).
Uddin, Saeed. “Don’t Let the Bed Bugs Bite.” The Daily Northwestern.
http://www.simpson.edu/~thesimp/archives/091296/bed.html (31 Mar. 1999).
1. What was easy about doing this project? The reading was easy because I was
genuinely interested in my research question.
2. What was difficult about doing this project? Finding the time to do the research and
type up the paper was the toughest part since, in addition to teaching during the day
and at night, I am taking a graduate course, and I am a single mother.
3. Were the sources you used adequate for thoroughly answering your research
question? They were okay. But I would have liked to find more books and less
Internet articles produced by college students.
4. How do you think you could have improved your paper or presentation? I wish I
could have used a more sophisticated computer and a color printer, and I would have
liked to have found a few more sources.
5. What things would you do differently next time during the research phase of a project
such as this? I would use a periodical search service that has more full texts
available, and I would use less Internet sources since the validity of some of those
sources is questionable.