The teens are not alright! In fact, they’re experiencing a sleep crisis. In this episode, we talk to journalist Lisa Lewis about why teens have different sleep needs than the rest of us and how she worked to get more sleep for all Californian teens. We explore sleep hygiene and what it means to restructure society around a vital health need.
- An NBC News article on changing school start times.
- Lisa Lewis’ book on the teen sleep crisis, The Sleep Deprived Teen
- The CDC’s Youth Risk Behavior Survey
This episode was written and hosted by Laura Smith and Leah Worthington, and produced by Coby McDonald.
Special thanks to Pat Joseph, Margie Cullen and Lisa Lewis. Art by Michiko Toki and original music by Mogli Maureal.
LAURA SMITH: In 2015, Lisa Lewis’s son had just started high school. She drove him to school every morning. And she started to notice something different about him on the way.
LISA LEWIS: 2:11 I could tell just looking over at him when I was driving him to school that he was barely awake. I mean, he was really in no shape to be showing up to school, bright eyed and bushy tailed and ready to learn.
LAURA: It’s sort of a trope, teens often seem sleepy and sulky but Lisa was concerned. And in particular she blamed the school start times.
LISA: 1:57 Our local high school at the time started the day at 7:30 in the morning.
LAURA:Most parents wouldn’t think to question their kid’s school start time. But Lisa isn’t your average parent.
LISA: 0:16 I am a parenting journalist and an author.
LISA: 0:38 I am a Cal grad class of 89.
LISA: 0:46 A double major in rhetoric and mass communications.
LAURA: So Lisa did what every journalist does when she sees something that concerns her: she started digging in. Was it good for her son to be going to school this early? Was anyone else having this problem? And what effect might his daily exhaustion have on his well-being, his school performance, and really everything?
LISA: 2:44 And I realized there was a huge body of research out there about teen sleep and about school start times. And it was actually just really hitting a critical mass.
LISA: 3:01 That very same month, the CDC had just released its first report on school start times. And the previous year 2014, the American Academy of Pediatrics had put out its policy statement, which was that secondary schools should start no earlier than 8:30 in the morning, because of the health and well being ramifications for teens.
LAURA: You might be thinking, isn’t that when most schools start anyway? As it turns out, a lot of schools in California start a LOT earlier than that.
LISA: 30:01 There are even schools in California that start as early as 7am. And this is mandatory: sit, you know, be in your seats or you’re considered truant if you’re not there. So that is one of the things that really propelled my involvement.
LAURA: Lisa was startled by what the research revealed about everything from mental health to academic performance. And she felt it was something that every parent—and every concerned citizen—should know.
LEAH: So, in true journalist fashion, she wrote a book about it, right?
LAURA: That’s right. But for Lisa, the book still wasn’t enough. What if she could make change in schools across the country?
LEAH: Yessss moms sweeping the nation making big changes.
LAURA: This is The Edge, a podcast produced by California magazine and the Cal Alumni Association. This week we’re talking to journalist Lisa Lewis about the latest teen sleep research and what it can teach us about mental health and performance.
LEAH: We’ll bust sleep myths and discuss what it means to imagine restructuring our society around this essential health need.
LAURA: I’m your host, Laura Smith.
LEAH: And I’m your other host, Leah Worthington.
LAURA: So Leah, we’re in a teen sleep crisis.
LEAH: Oh gosh.
LAURA: According to the CDC’s National Youth Risk Behavior Survey, only 22 percent of teens are getting the right amount of sleep!
LEAH: You know, that actually kind of checks out. Like, so that’s what, 3 out of 4 teens are sleep deprived? That seems correct. I mean, I know I was sleep deprived.
LAURA: Um yeah. Me too. But the question is why. Like what’s the deal with teens that makes them so sleepy. ?
LISA: 6:32 So one key piece is that teen sleep is different. It’s really, it’s based on their biology, basically, at the onset of puberty, their circadian rhythms shift. So that means there’s a body clock shift when melatonin is released, which is the hormone that primes us to feel sleepy, when it is released shifts to a later schedule, meaning they’re not sleepy until later at night. And then the melatonin also doesn’t subside until later in the morning. So their whole schedule shifts later. Meaning that that, unlike you know, if you’ve got a kid who’s six, who’s six years old, they bound out of bed every morning at the crack of dawn, and then they just sort of collapse at the end of the day. Well, your teen is not bouncing out of bed at 6:30 in the morning, they are not ready to fall asleep until closer to 11 o’clock at night. And then they need eight to 10 hours. So if you do the math, you know on the other end, if they’re supposed to be sitting in their seats, every single day for school, let’s say 7:30, or even earlier, there’s no way they can be getting the the recommended amount of sleep.
LEAH: But, okay, so beyond being a bunch of brain dead zombies stumbling through the halls of their high schools, what exactly happens when teens don’t get enough sleep?
LAURA: One of the big issues, Lisa said, is mental health.
LISA: 8:04 There are huge costs in terms of health and well being. I mean, we know teens’ mental health issues have been exacerbated by everything that’s been going on these these last few years. But even before then, there were some serious issues in terms of, of teen mental health. So inadequate sleep is linked with depression. It’s linked with increased suicidality, it’s also even more, less severe issues related to mood just not even things like not being able to derive pleasure from ordinary things in life.
LISA: 8:47 In the classroom, there are academic ramifications. Literally kids who are falling asleep, while they’re sitting at their desks, are not learning. And even if they are awake, you know, they may look like they’re awake, but their brain is not functioning optimally, that for them to be learning information, retaining that information, is not going to happen as effectively, there are implications on the road when you look at teen drivers who are out there who are already dangerous to begin with, because they’re new and they’re they’re still learning. And when they’re sleep deprived, that just ups the ante. Athletes, they’re more prone to injuries, the list really just goes on and on.
LAURA: Another thing she mentioned, that might also be familiar, is that sleep-deprivation tends to exacerbate risk taking. So in teens, who are already more risk-prone because their brains are underdeveloped, impulsive behavior becomes even more common when they’re really tired.
LEAH: What? Impulsive behavior? No way. We never hopped the fence at a nearby hotel to hang out at their jacuzzi at night.
LAURA: Of course you didn’t. That would be trespassing, Leah.
LEAH: It would be trespassing, you’re right. So……even while we were pretty much all not sleeping enough and engaging in, let’s say, unadvised activities, some of us were better able to cope than others.
LAURA: Totally. And that’s something that Lisa emphasizes.
LISA: 10:29 Absolutely. Yeah, I literally have an entire chapter in the book called ‘not all teens sleep the same.’
10:46 So when it comes to biological sex, so biological females, and I’ll say that because one of the areas that that absolutely is a factor is menstruation, so monthly cycles, and the fact that so many menstruating females do experience pain as part of that, that can affect their sleep.
11:25 Another statistic that I wasn’t aware of is that about half of US girls get their periods by age 12. So this is really affecting pretty much every single biological female in middle school and high school.
LAURA: Then Lisa says that who we are and how we identify in the world have a big impact on our resiliency.
LISA: 14:20 Teens of color are disproportionately likely to sleep poorly.
LISA: 11:59 There have been studies done that show that sexual and gender minority teens and and young adults often sleep worse than their peers.
LAURA: According to Gallup’s latest poll, 20% of Gen Z identify as LGBTQ. So we’re talking about potentially a fifth of the population who are even more affected by lack of sleep.
LISA: 14:25 Unfortunately, a lot of those differences are rooted in discrimination. And when we say discrimination, it’s everything from microaggressions on up, because if you have been on the receiving end of that, you know, you you’re affected by that. And when they’ve done studies, there was one done actually in 2020. And what they found was that when teens who said that they had experienced discrimination, had more trouble falling asleep that night, they also were sleepier the following day. So that’s absolutely a factor.
LAURA: OK, so teens everywhere are in this endless loop of sleep-deprivation leading to stress leading to MORE sleep-deprivation…and on and on. The question is: Given all the pressures on kids these days, how do we break that cycle?
LEAH: 18:02 So Lisa, do you think that teens should be going to sleep when they feel tired and waking up when you know, naturally without an alarm when they’re well rested? How, like in practice, what does that even look like?
LISA: 18:13 Yes, in practice, there’s, there’s the ideal and then there’s reality. So that would be ideal for all of us really, to be able to be more in tune with our intrinsic rhythms. So many of us are not. We are driven by the rhythms of modern life. I mean, even things like light, the fact that now we have electric light, that allows us to, you know, to keep working until late in the night, that was not the case.
LEAH: So recently, Lisa had the chance to actually experience what life might be like if it were dictated by the sun. If you live in California, you probably remember the rolling blackouts that we experienced in the summer of 2020, right after the pandemic hit. Basically PG&E shut off power in different parts of the state for several hours or even days at a time to prevent potential wildfire. Meaning—no electricity, no internet, no TV.
LISA: 19:06 And I can remember one of those nights, you know, it was it was still daylight and we lost our power.
19:34 And so as the sun went down, and as it got darker, you know, pretty soon it was pretty dark. And we lit candles.
19:53 I can remember trying to read a book and being surrounded by candles. It looked like I was holding a seance. And and then after, you know, at some point just realizing like, well, I guess there’s really nothing more to do, I guess I’m just gonna go to bed. And then having one of the best night’s sleep I’ve had in I can’t remember how long.Just that, that, that experience of not being awake later, you know, late at night watching TV with the presence of all these artificial lighting sources, and just really seeing what a difference it made.
LAURA: That sounds so nice. I just kind of want to shut off my power.
LEAH: I know, I’m imagining writing to my editor and being like, ‘I’m so sorry, the, the candle burned out.’
LAURA: ‘I had to go to bed!’
LEAH: ‘I’m gonna have to write this story tomorrow.’
LISA: I still remember what a good night’s sleep I had. And this was like two years ago. Now, of course, could I have replicated it anytime since? Yes. Have I done it? Of course not. Just because it’s not convenient when you get back into your regular rhythms of life.
LAURA: 21:17 I mean even just speaking from your home alone, what kinds of things did you set up for your kids to try to help them have better sleep hygiene?
LISA: 21:26 That is a really good question, and the whole term of sleep hygiene is really important, because it is how do you prime yourself to start winding down for bed and have literally a wind down routine? I think that I am much more cognizant of that now than I was. And I think everyone in my household is more cognizant of it now, too, because they’ve had to listen to me about this for the last several years. And it’s things like getting off of electronics, so you’re not you know, on your phone or on your computer and and then expecting to just be able to turn off the light and and put your head down and just, you know, like you’re turning off your computer because our brains don’t work that way. So um what I would say is establishing good household tech rules early on, is a great best practice.
LAURA: 22:24 How do you establish those good tech rules? Do you say, ‘okay, computers shut off at seven,’ or ‘no phones after eight?’
LEAH: Just pull the plug?
LISA: Yeah exactly. Well see, that’s the thing. There’s the ideal, and then there’s what can you do. So realistically, especially with teens, they have to be online to do their homework, they have to be online to turn their homework in. So you know, as much as we would all like to to maybe go back to to not using computers, of being able to say, ‘no computers after dinner.’ Like that’s probably not realistic. But the official recommendations are no tech one hour before bedtime. So that is realistic.
23:05 It’s something I have found for myself, that I really try and step away from the computer no later than nine o’clock.
23:37 If I’m sitting in bed, and I’m doom scrolling, that is not helping me wind down for sleep. And I learned that the hard way. So I had a hard time doing it on my own. But I did realize I could set my phone to shut off those apps at 9:30.
23:56 You know, all of a sudden those apps go dim, and that’s a reminder. And I read a book.
LAURA: 25:25 And there’s also the blue light, right? Like, isn’t that part of the problem as well?
LISA: Yes, yes, that there’s that piece too. And that’s what I talked about, being on the computer, that’s what I was finding specifically. Um.
LISA: 25:37 Blue light that the devices emit can delay the release of melatonin. So that absolutely is a factor.
LISA: 26:06 That being said though—
LISA: 44:23 I was surprised to find that blue light really is not seen as the primary driver when it comes to sleep deprivation, that really the experts see the social engagement with interacting with people online or with whatever you’re doing online. And just this the time displacement factor as being more important. And time displacement, meaning if you’re staying up until 1am, playing video games, of course that’s cutting into your sleep time.
LEAH: 29:13 It seems like the biggest challenge really is, you know, given all everything that is distracting in our modern world, you know, technology, blue light, caffeine, whatever, trying to get in touch with our own body’s rhythms is really challenging.
LISA: Well, and especially the rhythms when we look at teens that they are biologically programmed to fall asleep later at night and wake later in the morning. And so that’s why the issue of school start times when it comes to middle and high schools is so essential.
LEAH: Oh, right, school times! I kind of forgot that’s where this all started.
LISA: 29:51 I think when we started off, I mentioned how my son’s high school started at 7:30 in the morning, so that is far too early.
LEAH: So, is this the part where Lisa takes the nation by storm?
LAURA: Yep, here we go. So, Lisa wanted to get school start times pushed back.
LEAH: And I’m assuming we’ve been able to measure some benefit of changing school start times?
LISA: 39:53 Absolutely. There is a huge body of research because they’ve had these start times, later start times in place in so many communities for so long. So the very first school to make the change was Edina High School in Edina, Minnesota. And that was 1996, 97, 96 I think it was. And what they have found over and over in these studies is when schools move their start times later in the morning, students get more sleep. So as an example, the largest city to date that has changed its start times is Seattle. And they did that in 2016. And they were able to do pre- and post- surveys. And what they found was after the change, students were getting an average of 34 minutes more sleep each night. And that endures. It’s not just a short term blip from the change, that these kinds of lasting increases in student sleep actually really do endure.
LAURA: And, unsurprisingly, there seems to be a correlation between getting more sleep and doing better in school.
LISA: 41:04 What they’ve been measuring at the school level, what they can measure more directly is impact on things like academics, there have been studies that show increases in grades, there’s also reduction in tardies, there are reductions in absences, there are increases in graduation rates. So really, across the board, there are improvements.
LEAH: While helping teens get more sleep isn’t really a controversial issue, it’s worth mentioning that moving start times back may have some repercussions. It might be difficult for working parents who have to get to their jobs or have multiple kids to drop off. Later school end times also mean that after-school activities—jobs, sports and other extracurriculars—also start later, pushing everything back into the evening. As one education researcher said: “everyone is going to be watching to see what the results will be.”
LAURA: Good point. So getting back to Lisa, the more she learned about teen sleep, the more she realized that it was actually a public health issue and that the best way to respond was with legislation.
LAURA: At first, when Lisa went to her district, the legislators weren’t really interested in hearing what she had to say. But she kept writing.
LISA: 32:28 And then it was fall of 2016, so when my son was just starting his sophomore year, that I wrote an op-ed that ran in the Los Angeles Times about why schools should start later in the day.
32:51 One of our California state senators, Anthony Portantino, who is based in LA, read the op-ed in the newspaper. He, at the time, also had a child who was a high schooler, his daughter had just started her freshman year. So this was an issue that really resonated with him.
35:53 And he decided to introduce a state bill about it mandating later school start times for middle and high school. So that bill was introduced in February of 2017. And as part of Start School Later, I got involved on a volunteer basis, helping really as an advocate.
LEAH: And what would this bill do exactly?
LAURA: So it requires that California public high schools start no earlier than 8:30 and public middle schools start no earlier than 8.
LEAH: Moms, man. They’re really looking out for us.
LAURA: They just never give up.
LISA: 36:32 It was a two and a half year process, actually, from when the bill was introduced to when it was finally signed into law.
37:13 California is the first state in the nation to do this. This is the first law of its scope in the entire country, requiring healthy school start times. And that law had a three year implementation window. So it goes into effect July 1.
LEAH: Of this year?
LISA: Yes, July 1, 2022.
LAURA: Yes, this is a very timely episode. Unfortunately for Lisa, the bill came out too late for her son. But she has a daughter who will hopefully reap the benefits of more sleep. And, more importantly, so will all of California. Not to mention all the other states who have similar legislation in the pipeline.
LEAH: Hm, I wonder if this is a shift that really became possible because of the pandemic when suddenly our whole society was kind of forced to reimagine how we do things and become a little more flexible, a little more accommodating of people’s lives.
LAURA: Yeah, in fact, Lisa said that the idea of changing start times before the pandemic felt impossible.
LISA: 37:54 In many communities, because of the pandemic, when schools had to abruptly shift to remote schooling back in March of 2020, a lot of them actually changed their start times. They did not need to start quite as early as they had. And so in a lot of cases, they were able to start later in the morning.
LAURA: And if you think about it, it’s a pretty modern idea. The old way of structuring schools and workplaces was sort of a factory, one size-fits all approach: we’re all going to get up at the same time and do the same things. Lisa’s argument is that different people need different things, so let’s change the way we structure society, to make it work better for everyone.
LEAH: It makes me wonder, and this is something I’ve been thinking about a lot recently, what other kinds of things could be restructured–not just for kids. But, you know, we live in our increasingly digital world, as they say. And and what if we could work a-synchronistically so the night owls among us, me, can work when they work best and the early birds can…
LAURA: Catch their worms?
LEAH: Catch their worms, yes. Like, who invented the 9 to 5? Who does that work for? No one. Let’s abolish it.
LAURA: Maybe fodder for another episode, Leah? What will Leah abolish next?
LEAH: Abolish, abolish. Woo! Tune in for our new series about abolishing things.
LAURA: We’re not joking, actually.
LEAH: No, really.
LAURA: This is The Edge, brought to you by California magazine and the Cal Alumni Association. I’m Laura Smith.
LEAH: And I’m Leah Worthington.
LAURA: This episode was produced by Coby McDonald, with support from Pat Joseph, Margie Cullen, Maia Nehme. Special thanks to Lisa Lewis. Original music by Mogli Maureal.
Image credit: “Free College Pathology Student Sleeping” by D. Sharon Pruitt licensed under CC By 2.0.