Students Make Sacrifices on Sleep and Pay the Costs

Jun Woo Kang, News Editor

South Korea has a generation of teens growing up chronically sleep-deprived, and you might be one of them. Ask yourself, “am I sleep deprived?” Most likely, your response will be similar to the students in GSIS publication class where 87 percent answered “yes”.

Louie Chung, sophomore, often reaches a breaking point around 11 p.m., when he collapses onto his desk. For ten minutes or so, he just sits at his desk, “worn out” by unrelenting school demands. He is desperately tired and longs for sleep, but he knows he must move through it, because more assignments in English, publications or Spanish await him. He finally crawls into bed around midnight or 12:30 A.M.

The next morning, he fights to stay awake in his first-period U.S. history class, which begins at 8:00. He is unable to focus on what’s being taught, and his mind drifts. “You feel tired and exhausted, but you think you just need to get through the day so you can go home and sleep,” said Louie. But that night, he will have to try to catch up on what he missed in class. And the cycle begins again.

“It’s so crazy… The whole point of learning is kinda lost,” he said.

Stephanie Kim, senior, gets worn out after she returns home from her visual art hagwon. “I just come back from art class, eat dinner, do my homework, and it turns out it is three o’clock in the morning,” she said. “Plus, I take DP Art, so there are process journals I have to write, and I have to take TOEFL and SATs… it’s a tough life.” She also admitted that teenage deprivation is a universal phenomenon in Korea.

“There are some people who sleep just an hour a day. What makes me sad is that people not getting enough sleep has become kind of normal,” she sighed, “Kids should sleep, so they can grow. Stop giving us summatives, SATs, and these nonsense for us to grow and stay healthy.” She also commented on the flaws of the school policy that seems to be impacting the students’ sleep cycle, “The handbook says how the school can give a maximum of three summatives, but we [DP Students] have four subjects a day. That means it is ok for us to get summatives for more than half of our classes. I think they should change it to just one summative a day. It’s not like it’s going to impact the teachers that much. They don’t grade our stuff right away. Let us breathe!”

According to a 2015 National Sleep Foundation poll, the most recent survey of teen sleep, more than 87 percent of high school students in South Korea get far less than the recommended eight to ten hours, and the amount of time they sleep is decreasing — a serious threat to their health, safety and academic success. Sleep deprivation increases the likelihood teens will suffer a myriad of negative consequences, including an inability to concentrate, poor grades, drowsy-driving incidents, anxiety, depression, thoughts of suicide and even suicide attempts.

While studies show that both adults and teens in industrialized nations are becoming more sleep deprived, the problem is most acute among teens. In a detailed 2015 report, the American Academy of Pediatrics called the problem of tired teens a public health epidemic.

“I think high school is the real danger spot in terms of sleep deprivation,” said Olivia Chan, DP and MYP science teacher. “It’s a huge problem. What it means is that nobody performs at the level they could perform,” whether it’s in school, on the sports field or in terms of physical and emotional health.

Where Stephanie once had good sleep habits, she had drifted into an unhealthy pattern of staying up late, sometimes until 3 A.M., trying to prepare for tests at such a late time. “I have difficulty remembering events for this month, and I think it’s because I didn’t get enough sleep,” she said. “I tend to sleep everywhere. Whenever I am seated – even during classes.”

The experience should be a wake-up call, as the need to return to a more balanced life and a better sleep pattern, is clearly exposed to her. But for some teens, this toxic mix of sleep deprivation, stress and anxiety, together with other external pressures, can tip their thinking toward dire solutions.

After an evening with four or five hours of homework, Louie turns to his phone for relief. He texts or talks to friends and browses the internet. “It’s nice to stay up and talk to your friends or watch a basketball videos,” he said, “There are plenty of online distractions.”

The problem of sleep-phase delay is exacerbated when teens are exposed late at night to lit screens, which send a message via the retina to the portion of the brain that controls the body’s circadian clock. The message: It’s not nighttime yet.

While teens are biologically programmed to stay up late, many social and cultural forces further limit their time for sleep. For one, the pressure on teens to succeed is intense, and they must compete with a growing number of peers for college slots that have largely remained constant.

At the same time, today’s teens are maturing in an era of ubiquitous electronic media, and they are fervent participants. Some 92 percent of Korean teens have smartphones, and 24 percent report being online “constantly,” according to a 2015 report by South Korea’s ministry of health. Teens have access to multiple electronic devices they use simultaneously, often at night. Some 72 percent bring cell phones into their bedrooms and use them when they are trying to go to sleep, and 28 percent leave their phones on while sleeping, only to be awakened at night by texts, calls or emails. In addition, 64 percent use electronic music devices, 60 percent use laptops and 23 percent play video games an hour before they go to sleep, the research found. More than 50 percent reported texting an hour before they went to sleep, and these media fans were less likely to report getting a good night’s sleep and feeling refreshed in the morning.

Research has shown that sleep problems among adolescents are a major risk factor for suicidal thoughts and death by suicide, which ranks as the third-leading cause of fatalities among 15- to 24-year-olds. And this link between sleep and suicidal thoughts remains strong, independent of whether the teen is depressed or has drug and alcohol issues, according to some studies.

Given the health risks associated with sleep problems, school districts around the country have been looking at one issue over which they have some control: when school starts in the morning. The trend was officially set by the Korean government, It shifted the high school’s start time from 8:00 AM to 9:00 AM. The researchers found some surprising results: Students reported feeling less depressed and less sleepy during the day and more empowered to succeed. There was no comparable improvement in student well-being in surrounding school districts where start times remained the same. Meanwhile, the international schools in Korea which are not required to follow the school policies of the Korean government still maintain the 8:00 am school time. Knowing the improved health conditions of the students, this could be something for these schools to consider.

Certainly, changing school start times is only part of the solution, experts say. More widespread education about sleep and more resources for students are needed. Parents and teachers need to trim back their expectations and minimize pressures that interfere with teen sleep. And there needs to be a cultural shift, including a move to discourage late-night use of electronic devices, to help youngsters gain much-needed rest.

“At some point, we are going to have to confront this as a society,” Ms. Chan said. “For the health and well-being of the school, we should all be taking better care of our sleep, and we certainly should be taking better care of the sleep of our youth.”

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