2020 | Opinion

Opinion: Virtual schooling has given teens a chance to catch up on sleep

Start times, schedules now more in tune with internal clocks

When it comes to the scourge that has brought the world to its knees this year, there is little to appreciate. Beyond the unspeakable number of infections and deaths due to COVID-19 in the United States alone, Americans have found themselves restricted to a home office — or, in the case of students, a home classroom, making instruction much more difficult.

But perhaps not all is lost. Indeed, there is one undeniable benefit — or more aptly, opportunity — that students have in this new educational climate: the chance to sleep more.

It’s been well-studied how we’re doing our teenagers in by making them wake up at the crack of dawn to go to school. Adolescents’ brains generally release melatonin — one of the principal chemicals regulating sleep and the chemical mainly behind our circadian rhythms — significantly later in the day than adults’ brains do. This predisposes teens to falling asleep later at night (on the order of one to two hours later).

At the same time, teens tend to need more sleep than adults or children because of the crucial cognitive and physical development that happens during adolescence.

This means teens are doubly hurt by the early school start times we have historically imposed on them. School districts have cited various reasons for the draconian start times, including busing costs, parents needing to leave for work, and after-school sports and activities. 

But in the times of social distance and work from home, these reasons have gone out the window.

Various high schools in Montgomery County have shifted to a schedule with a later start time and longer breaks between classes, including Bethesda’s Walt Whitman High School and Silver Spring’s Montgomery Blair High School. With this more forgiving schedule and a lack of travel time to school, middle and high school students now have ample opportunity to get some sleep.

With that in mind, if you are in middle school or high school, here is my message to you:

Get some sleep.

The benefits of sleep are innumerable. For example, studies have shown a causal link between increased sleep and increased consolidation of both declarative memory — information like the first 10 amendments or the difference between an allegory and an analogy — and procedural memory — skills like shooting a basketball, playing the violin or making scrambled eggs.

So whether you’re an AP Government student or the next LeBron James, try putting your phone away a little bit earlier, and by all means, sleep in as late as you desire (but go to class!).

It doesn’t stop there, though. Complementary to the numerous benefits of sleep is the immeasurable damage caused by a lack thereof.

Maybe you’re confident in your tried-and-true pre-exam all-nighter and you drop 40 points a game in basketball with one hand tied behind your back.

Even still, if you don’t get enough sleep, people will notice. I don’t mean you’ll doze off in class or drag your feet when you walk. I mean you literally look less attractive when you’re sleep deprived.

Indeed, when researchers took pictures of subjects who were sleep deprived and asked people to rate how healthy and attractive they looked, the sleep-deprived subjects scored significantly worse than when those subjects were given full nights of sleep.

Maybe you’re the ultimate contrarian: You’ll get good grades no matter what, cook a perfect omelet without looking, and can sight read Paganini. You’ve got friends for days and you’re the most attractive kid in school.

Well, unfortunately, I must inform you that chronic sleep deprivation could kill you. Researchers tried this out on rats, and sleep deprivation caused the rats to perish in just a one-month span.

Hopefully, the importance of sleep and the unique chance you have to actually get some are clear. With that in mind, the later school start time isn’t the only thing you have of which to take advantage.

You might have seen pictures of the nap pods introduced into the offices of companies like Google, Nike, and Procter & Gamble. Well, COVID-19 has done you the favor of installing a nap pod right in your classroom: your bed.

Thinking of staying up to cram for a test? Take a daytime nap instead. You’ll find yourself performing just as well on your test, and you get the added bonus of remembering the information the next day, which is, after all, the goal of your education in the first place.

Sweet dreams.

Haydn Gwyn of Potomac is a sophomore at the University of California, Berkeley. He graduated from Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring in 2019.

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