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Why Are We Soooooo Tired?

A nonfiction article and an infographic explore the importance of sleep—and how to get more of it.

By Matthew Hutson

Learning Objective: to read an article and an infographic about sleep and to draw from both to create a PSA

 

Lexile: 900L

Story Navigation

AS YOU READ

What factors contribute to sleep deprivation?

Why Are We Soooooo Tired?

Studies show teens in America aren’t getting enough sleep. Here’s why that’s a problem—and how to fix it. 

In 1963, a teen in San Diego named Randy Gardner had an idea for a science fair project: He would see how long he could stay awake. By the end of the experiment, he had been up for 264 hours. 

That’s 11 days.

Gardner had set a record for the longest period without sleep. But along the way, he was not quite himself. He became moody, forgetful, paranoid. At one point, he mistook a street sign for a person. On day four, he thought he was a running back for the San Diego Chargers.

You probably don’t have plans to stay up for 11 days straight like Gardner did, but if you’re like most kids, you probably stay up too late. Teenagers need about nine hours of sleep a night. Yet the majority of teens don’t get anywhere near that. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 73 percent of American high school students and 58 percent of middle school students surveyed aren’t getting enough sleep. 

Kids aren’t the only ones who are tired either. According to a 2019 study*, more than one-third of American adults are sleep deprived too.

Tired All the Time

You know the effects of a crummy night’s sleep: You feel groggy, forgetful, and clumsy. It’s no wonder—24 hours without sleep leaves a person as impaired as if they were legally drunk. Drowsy driving causes more than 100,000 car accidents every year.

Over time, a sleep deficit has serious consequences. A chronic lack of sleep increases the risk of depression, anxiety, injury, low self-esteem, and certain diseases. It can also affect concentration.

Getting enough sleep, on the other hand, can change your life. While you sleep, your body re-energizes. It builds muscle and bone and strengthens your immune system. Your brain stores memories and solves problems. Studies show that you’re more likely to remember something if you sleep after learning it.

Internal Clock

So how do you know if you are sleep deprived?

If it takes five alarms to get you up in the morning, or if you’re falling asleep and drooling on your Chromebook, chances are you’re not getting enough shut-eye.

Unfortunately, getting a full night’s sleep can be challenging. Sometimes it can feel as if your body—and the world—is working against you.

Why?

The first reason has to do with biology.

Sleep is regulated by two systems. The first system tells your body that the longer you’re awake, the more you need to sleep. The second is what’s known as a circadian rhythm—that is, your body’s 24-hour cycle. Your circadian rhythm is controlled by an internal body clock that tells you when it’s time to be awake and asleep.

During puberty, your body clock shifts. Suddenly you feel like going to bed one to three hours later. But if school starts at the same time it always has, getting enough sleep becomes tough. An irregular schedule—such as sleeping until noon on Saturdays and going to bed at all different times during the week— can also disrupt your circadian rhythm. As a result, you feel exhausted all the time.

Screens and Sleep

But it isn’t just biology that can get in the way of a good night’s sleep. There’s another obstacle: technology.

Studies show that the more time you spend staring at a screen, the more likely you are to stay up late and sleep less. One reason is that tech-related activities get your mind revved up, making it hard to relax. The other reason is that light—particularly the blue-wave light that many devices emit—tells your body it’s daytime. This prevents the release of melatonin, a hormone triggered by darkness that makes you drowsy. 

Mary Carskadon, a professor of psychiatry and human behavior at Brown University, calls the factors that affect sleep in teenagers a “perfect storm” for a sleep deficit. 

Sleep Solutions

The good news is that with some simple changes, you can get the sleep you need to feel rested and rejuvenated. 

First, think about how you can transform your bedroom into a sleeper’s paradise. Try to use your bed just for sleeping and not for other activities, such as eating or doing homework. If your room is the best place for schoolwork, set up a spot to work next to your bed instead of in it. Also avoid keeping your phone, controllers, and other devices within arm’s reach at night. It’s tempting to group chat, binge-watch, or play games into the wee hours. Before you go to bed, put your devices in a drawer or in another room. 

Second, get some exercise. Even a walk around the neighborhood can be beneficial. Just be sure not to do anything too physically active too late in the evening, because that will get your heart rate up and make it hard to relax and fall asleep.

Finally, create a calming bedtime ritual for yourself. Maybe have a cup of warm milk or herbal tea or read a favorite book. If you find your mind racing with things you’re worried about, try writing in a journal. This will help you process any feelings of anxiety. 

You could also spend 10 minutes sitting quietly and thinking about what you’re thankful for. That simple activity can be soothing and help your brain relax enough to get some sleep. Try different things and see what works for you.

“You want to go to sleep in a state of serenity,” says sleep expert Dr. Rafael Pelayo from the Stanford Center for Sleep Sciences and Medicine. “If you’re tense, nervous, or excited, it’s hard to sleep.”

Whether it’s counting your blessings, getting some extra exercise, or putting away your devices, there are lots of ways to get a better night’s rest. 

So give one a try—before you find yourself talking to street signs!

*Journal of Community Health

The Story of Sleep   

Statistics for infographic from the National Sleep Foundation; Nap facts from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

This article was originally published in the December 2020 / January 2021 issue.

Infographic image credits: Bettmann/Getty Images (Einstein); Ezra Shaw/Getty Images (Curry); PhotoQuest/Getty Images (Roosevelt); Shutterstock.com (all other images)

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Activities (8)
Quizzes (2)
Quizzes (2)
Answer Key (1)
Audio ()
Activities (8)
Quizzes (2)
Quizzes (2)
Answer Key (1)
Step-by-Step Lesson Plan

Close Reading, Critical Thinking, Skill Building

1. PREPARING TO READ (10 minutes)

2. READING AND DISCUSSING (45 minutes)

3. SKILL BUILDING AND WRITING (20 minutes)