Student Sleep Habits at Tam

by Elissa Asch

Some students understand that the extra half hour they stay up on Instagram at night makes them a little drowsy the next day, but what they don’t realize is that it also has the potential to shorten their life expectancy according to Harvard Medical School Division of Sleep Medicine and WGBH Educational Foundation, and puts them at greater risk of cancer according to The Guardian. In a new Tam News survey, 50 percent of students stay up at night on social media, and 34 percent stay up texting, meaning they are losing valuable sleep due to the call of their electronics.

Students reported in the survey that on average they get less than seven hours of sleep per night, when the recommended time is 9.5 hours. “I’ve been here twelve years, and kids have been telling me ever since I started how little sleep they get,” counselor Alex Hunt said.

In recent years electronics have become a huge player in the game of sleepless nights. “Social media…has a huge impact in this regard,” counselor Sarah Gordon said. According to CNET, “The consensus is that the blue light that LED screens give off can slow or halt the production of melatonin, the hormone that signals our brain that it’s time for bed.”

According to The Telegraph this means that using screens within thirty minutes of trying to go to bed, greatly affects your ability to sleep. 76 percent of Tam students reported that they always or regularly use screens within thirty minutes of bed, while 21 percent said that they sometimes did, and three percent said they never did.

At the end of the day there is only so much the school can do, and the elements of parenting and self-discipline come into play according to Hunt. “Social media is definitely a contributing factor obviously to kids staying up. At the same time, I don’t know that the school can really do anything to control that. It’s again more of a parent responsibility,” Hunt said. “I think kids will always rebel, it’s so ingrained, I don’t know that that’s changeable unless you get students on board. They have to number one, acknowledge that there’s a problem and number two, commit to the change. It has to come from them.”

Sleep deprivation also has repercussions in other areas of students’ lives. “It’s makes it difficult especially like first period in the morning, I’m just not coherent enough to properly do work so that gets pretty hard,” sophomore Spencer Salvio said.

Not only does a lack of sleep affect schoolwork, but stress levels as well. “I think my stress causes my lack of sleep and then my lack of sleep causes more stress,” sophomore Anya Dimiao said about the toxic cycle affecting student lives.

“The consequences of not enough sleep are longstanding on every part of a person, who they are emotionally, physically, spiritually, psychologically, all of that,” Gordon said. This statement is backed by the fact that 37 percent of students surveyed said that they sometimes missed school because they were too tired to go. “I think [sleep deprivation] has probably gotten worse,” science teacher Mary Wuerth said.

The sheer amount of activities kids are trying to participate in is part of the problem according to Hunt: “We’re also in a community where it seems like everybody’s overbooked and there’s a lot of pressure to be involved in everything, to quote ‘look good,’” she said.

“I have dance, and I do that…three times a week, on Tuesdays I actually have it from four to nine so I have trouble doing any homework on Tuesdays at all,” Dimaio said, giving an example of an over-crowded schedule. It seems this overscheduling is common among other students as well. “[I take] three AP’s and 3 honors, I work on the weekends and I do community service and dance,” junior Cate Ryan said.

It seems that in our community this pressure to participate in everything is ingrained from a young age. “I’m a mom…and my ten year old’s getting to the point where she’s doing ballet and she’s doing violin and she’s doing gymnastics and even at age ten she’s finding it hard to get her homework done at a reasonable time,” Wuerth said.

It seems even freshman are affected by college pressure. “I know people dropping out of what they like to do to join other things just having college in their minds, and it’s really sad,” freshman Natalie Towell said.

This over-scheduling is in part caused by an overly rigorous class schedule according to Gordon. “Every year when kids are signing up for course selections there is a move to take as many AP courses as you can, because there is a thinking in this community that that will get you into college, so more is better,” she said. “My mantra has always been more is less.”

“Its really not [a choice]…you can’t [tell colleges] ‘I’m sorry I prioritized my mental and physical health so I didn’t take more advanced classes, [colleges] are going to look down on that,” senior Noah Radetsky said. “So it’s unfortunately a situation where students are the victims of this system, and the victims of the way we think in this community.”

This situation is recognized by adults on campus as well. “We’re a homework high school, and whether you agree with it or not, it’s a reality that kids are having hours of homework every night,” Hunt said. Some teachers have made moves to reduce homework, social studies teacher Jennifer Dolan is well into her first year of having a no homework policy in the classroom. “When my son hit fifth grade and I started to see how much homework he was having and the effect it was having on him…I didn’t feel that I had a compelling reason to be assigning homework,” she said. “This was an experiment to see if I felt like I could cover as much curriculum…I wanted to make sure that I could still keep the level of rigor [where] it was before, but I feel like [no homework] almost enhances [the curriculum and rigor].”

According to Dolan’s own observations and a survey she gave in December her students feel the same way about this solution. “I feel like [students] are much more willing to do what you’re asking them to do if you’re also respecting their time outside of class and not just piling on the assignments. I don’t sense the resistance.” she said. “I would love for us to have this conversation among staff at a school wide level.”

This paradigm of the Marin community is evident as 71 percent of students said that they are kept awake later at night doing schoolwork, and 47 percent added that even when they finally manage to get into bed they are kept up by thoughts of schoolwork. “A couple years ago I was using this online tool to collect homework and it would time stamp when students would turn it in, and I would regularly see time stamps of like 1:30 in the morning,” Wuerth said.

“The thinking goes like this: we live in a super-competitive world where getting a good job requires getting into a good school which requires getting good grades in tough classes…and building up a good application worthy slate of extracurriculars,” said local clinical psychiatrist and author of four books including The Price of Privilege, Dr. Madeline Levine said. “To fit all of this, in something has to give. And that ‘something’ is sane bedtimes.”

This practice of over-involvement is a pointless tradition according to Hunt, “You should do sports if you love them, you should do activities outside of school if you’re passionate about them…but should you do everything under the sun and spread yourself too thin? No. And a lot of people in this community don’t necessarily understand that,” she said. “They think you should do everything you can to look good for colleges, when, in actuality, colleges won’t understand you if your resume is so spread out…students should have direction, they should demonstrate passion, but there should also be balance.”

As for a solution to the overload of classwork, Gordon doesn’t see limiting AP’s as a practical solution, though it has had wonderful effects in other schools. “A few years ago I’d heard on the way to work that a high school in San Francisco stopped doing AP courses and what an absolute difference that made in the lives of their kids,” Gordon said.” That’s never going to happen in this district. I don’t think we would ever get the community support for that because it’s such a high powered community.”

Misinformation among students and parents causes much of the problem surrounding college stress. “The [college] pressure is not coming from like the counselors or the college and career specialists saying ‘here’s what you need to do to get into this school’, it’s coming from kids saying ‘here’s what I heard’, or ‘here’s what I know’. And they don’t know because they’re all just talking to each other, circling the same misinformation,” Hunt said. “In terms of adults, they’re all coming from a good place…but they’re not necessarily coming from a place of founded knowledge…they’re not going to conferences and learning the actual information, they’re not talking to…college admissions counselors.”

Another contributor to the sleep deprivation is zero periods. “Zero periods are crazy…the fact that kids are actually [coming in at 7am]…that is a crazy time to even consider having kids come to school,” Gordon said. Science teacher Grace Pender is leading the Link Crew zero period for the first time this year. “I definitely think that…just from my discussions with kids in the morning..they have so much stuff to do that they stay up later when they should be, even when they have a zero period the next day,” she said. “I would say half the kids feel awake, and half the kids, it’s really hard for them to wake up.”

According to the Tam News survey data, eight percent of all students reported that they woke up earlier than they otherwise would for a zero period. That eight percent averaged barely six hours of sleep a night, meaning they are missing more than one third of the sleep they should be getting.

Currently there are no widespread solutions being enacted, although some forms of help are being offered. “We see attendance issues, we see students stress and anxiety when they’re here on campus, we see poor coping strategies…so we are looking to better address the symptoms but I mean the larger cause is a community wide issue,” Vice Principal Brian Lynch said.

It seems the most popular answer to this sleep dilemma among students is moving the school start time back. A high school in Edina Minnesota moved school start time back about an hour and found that absence and tardy rates went down, and some SAT scores went up. 99 percent of students said that they would get the same amount or more sleep if the start time was moved back, while only one percent said that they would get less sleep or that they weren’t sure. According to the National Sleep Foundation, “Teens tend to have irregular sleep patterns across the week…which can affect their biological clocks and hurt the quality of their sleep.”

“When I’m in first period I’m still asleep, my brain hasn’t woken up yet and I don’t take in as much information, so if school started later we’d be able to be more awake and be more ready for the day,” sophomore Piper Gilmore said. “People would be going to bed at the same time and they’d sleep longer and that also would help academically, you could also use the extra hour for homework.”

Ryan thinks an earlier start time might also solve other school issues. “I think it could relieve some of the tardy issues…I know my first period class, there are a lot of people that don’t make it a priority to get to it,” she said.

The idea of moving school start time back is popular among adults as well, “I think [moving the school start time] needs to be looked at from a standpoint of that’s something the community could do, this district could change policy around that, and then of course it’s going to have an impact on everyone’s day,” Gordon said. “I’m sure we would see way less stress, because obviously if you’re not tired you can handle so much more…we would see [lower absence and tardy rates].” Pender agreed. “I personally would probably be a more effective teacher if I started work later in the day,” she said.

Hunt sees both sides of the issue, “People all agree in the regard that if we started school later, kids would probably be more alert, and it might be better for them. The problem is it’s not only kids who go to this school. We have a lot of adults that teach at this school who have family obligations or have kids of their own on specific timelines,” she said. “As a staff we have to decide every few years what our schedule will be, but in order to do that you have to get a majority. If we do want to change the schedule, the process can be kind of arduous, requiring a lot of meetings and discussion.”

Teachers Union site representative Matt Tierney explained more about this process. “In order for [the schedule] to be altered the teachers and the administration, but especially the teachers have to agree to a…different type of schedule,” he said. “We vote on whether we want to keep the schedule we have now, or adopt a new schedule [every few years] and [the vote is] usually…unanimously keep our schedule.”

Changing the schedule is also a complicated decision. “The schedule is actually slightly trickier than one thinks, you have to have a whole bunch of minutes for the state,” Tierney said. “I have not heard any grassroot energy [to move the start time back]…Nobody comes to me, and I would be one of the people to come to.”

Wuerth who has two kids at home said, “It would be a problem for me, because I would have to pay more money for the babysitter because I would have to get home later, I think every school in the county should have the same start time.” Despite this Wuerth also believes that the expectation for kids to be alert this early is unfair. “[Adults] go to the office at like nine, if we’re not asking adults to be alert and awake at 7:55, then I’m not sure we should be asking kids to be,” Wuerth said. “I think even if we just shifted the startime to 8:30 it would probably help kids a lot.”

Lynch who also has a three year old at home has a different view about the at-home affect moving the start time would have. “If it was pushed back it would not negatively impact me, as it is I have to drop my poor son who is three off at preschool at seven o’clock in the morning so that I can be here by 7:30,” he said. “I have to wake my son up…and this morning he was like, ‘I want to sleep daddy, I want to sleep.”

Gordon believes that educating parents and students is the key. “[We need] some education around it, here, at school let’s talk about it. Let’s…get a recognized speaker in here that can talk to parents about sleep, have workshops for kids around it, let them know what the consequences are,” Gordon said. A belief that is reflected in the facts. While 44 percent of students said that they did, or sometimes did get enough sleep, less than one percent of students surveyed were actually getting enough sleep on average, showing that this knowledge gap is real.

“If [change is] something that [students] want then they [should] really advocate for that, I think the district would listen, and it could be a positive change,” Radetsky said.