By Macaela Mackenzie, & Ally Carlton-Smith, MS

A future riddled with student loan debt isn’t the only deficit students have to worry about—sleep debt can also leave them feeling depleted. “Sleep debt is an accumulation of sleep deprivation,” says Dr. Michael Breus, a clinical psychologist and fellow of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine. It’s a big issue: Nearly 70 percent of high school students report that they sleep less than the recommended eight hours a night, according to a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Sleep debt can affect students’ overall mental, physical, and emotional health, including:

Academic performance: Students who are sleep deprived struggle more academically and are at a higher risk of failing compared to those who are getting enough rest on a consistent basis, says a 2014 study in Nature and Science of Sleep. “Sleep deprivation affects cognitive function directly and quickly,” says Dr. Breus.

Mood: Female students who reported nightly sleep debts of two hours or more were significantly more likely to report depressive symptoms than those with smaller debts, a 2010 study in Psychiatry Research found.

Body: Sleep debt increases the production of hunger hormones, raises stress hormones, and impedes our ability to use sugar effectively, according to a 2010 meta-analysis of research published in Pediatric Endocrinology. It can also impact athletic performance. Sleep debt ups the risk of student injuries on the field, according to a 2014 study published in the Journal of Pediatric Orthopedics.

Short of physically putting students to bed each night, how can parents, teachers, and school staff build a community that promotes healthy sleep rather than one that glamorizes all-nighters? Here are some places to start:


Teachers and school staff, help students learn about sleep hygiene:

  • Spread sleep hygiene awareness. Launch a public awareness campaign, and train student leaders and staff to share strategies for building healthy sleep habits. A semester-long study at Macalester College in Minnesota found that students who received sleep health information from campus staff two to three times throughout the semester reported fewer negative sleep habits.
  • Educate your educators. Teachers and school staff can sometimes be in the best position to spot widespread sleep deprivation. Train staff to be able to provide information to students and intervene if they notice students routinely nodding off in class.

Parents, help your teen develop healthy sleep habits:

  • Set a routine bedtime and wake-up time. Talk to your teen and come up with a reasonable bedtime and wake time that will help them get at least eight hours. Encourage them to wake up within an hour of their usual wake time on weekends too, which will help regulate their body clock. If they’re struggling to go to bed early enough, help them adjust their bedtime by 15 minutes every few days until they reach a reasonable schedule.
  • Implement a “no tech before bed” rule. Work with your teen to turn off tech and remove it from the bedroom at least an hour before bed. Purchase a traditional alarm clock for them so they don’t have to rely on their phone’s alarm. (Tip: Try the “no tech before bed” rule yourself to set a good example and improve your own sleep schedule.)