Sleep deprivation has proven to have dire consequences on an individual’s ability to function, especially in high pressure situations. The Exxon Valdez oil spill, Chernobyl nuclear power plant meltdown and explosion of the Challenger are all tragedies that involved sleep deprived individuals. Teenagers, who are recommended by the National Sleep Foundation to get 8 to 10 hours of sleep each night, are especially susceptible to sleep deprivation and the negative academic and health consequences that result from it.
A recent study conducted by Washington State University found that sleep deprivation prevents the brain from effectively using feedback to adapt to decision-making situations. Previous studies and experiments were unable to accurately recreate such decision-making situations and the effects of sleep deprivation, not acknowledging the requirement that individuals register feedback and adapt to changing circumstances. This six day study, however, included 26 healthy adults at a sleep center in Spokane, Washington, which was turned into a hotel-like laboratory for the experiment. Fifty percent of the participants were randomly selected to go 62 hours without sleep after the first two days of the experiment, while the others were able to rest and sleep as needed.
All of the subjects were asked to perform “reversal learning tasks” in an effort to test their ability to use feedback for future decision-making. The specific task at hand involved being shown a series of numbers, some of which had a “go” value that was connected to a monetary value (which was imaginary and only for purposes of the experiment), while the others had “no go” values. The numbers with “go” values stayed constant throughout and both groups of participants, sleep-deprived and well rested, were doing well in figuring out and remembering the patterns. However, halfway through the experiment, the values were reversed, switching “go” and “no go” numbers. The well-rested participants were able to figure this out within 8 to 16 numbers, whereas the sleep-deprived participants were highly confused and never fully figured out the pattern reversal. This is a scary but important finding, as some of the most high pressure careers in which decision-making is vital, such as those in medicine and the military, often require individuals to work long hours and sometimes go days without sleep.
Teens and sleep deprivation
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), 87 percent of high school students are chronically sleep deprived. This puts them at a greater risk for depression and anxiety, in addition to fatigue-related injuries and accidents (for example, car accidents). Sleep deprivation has also been linked to obesity. The 2012 Monitoring the Future survey found that more than 50 percent of high schoolers ages 15 and up would need at least two more hours of sleep every night in order to meet the AAP’s recommendation for adequate sleep. Without enough sleep, teenagers are forced to perform at half-mast academically and socially.
Teenagers have historically had seemingly strange sleeping patterns, but the increased academic pressures in recent decades combined with social media and technology have only added to their sleep deprivation. After a long school day, most teens participate in extracurriculars, school sports activities and/or have after-school jobs. In addition, according to the University of Phoenix College of Education’s recent national survey, high school students in the U.S. face up to 17.5 hours of homework per week.
Many parents and school officials feel as though the early start times of middle and high schools contribute to this sleep deprivation and are making an effort to change start times around the nation. In March of 2015, the Society of Pediatric Nurses and the National Association of School Nurses aligned with the AAP in its policy recommendation that schools have a start time of no earlier than 8:30 a.m. This would be more conducive to the natural sleep cycle of teenagers, who, according to the AAP, are biologically programmed to stay up later in the evening and wake up later in the morning than adolescents and adults.
If your child is struggling with mental health issues as a result of sleep deprivation, help is available. Call 866-615-7266 today to speak with a professional at Sovereign Health Rancho San Diego, a facility that specializes in the treatment of adolescent and teenagers struggling with mental health issues, substance abuse and dual diagnosis.
Written by Courtney Howard, Sovereign Health Group writer