What’s wrong with America’s young adults? Study after study gives evidence of a widespread postmodern malaise. Teens socialize less, feel more stressed, and are more prone to do violence against themselves and others. In such a time, with so many amenities and so many experts, this problem makes little sense.
Commentators have considered some causes to this. Those on the conservative end of the spectrum will decry the breakdown of the family and the decrease in religious attendance, calling it a “crisis of meaning.” Affecting young and old alike, people without faith or community find little point in living. Hence, they usually attempt to fill their lives with things or popular ideologies, but they will inevitably be dissatisfied and bored.
Others on the progressive end of the spectrum will assert the opposite. They will suggest that a narrow-minded culture, still defined by family and religion, burdens young people hoping to express their individuality. Children wanting explore their sexuality, their gender, their politics, their faith, and everything else face too much pushback from authority figures and peers who impose their values onto them. Thus, there arises a “crisis of identity” where young people cannot be or think whatever they want.
On both sides of the spectrum, many will point out the rapid advancement and proliferation of technology. More than anything, the ownership of a smartphone marks the biggest difference between the iGen and all the previous generations. Not only do these devices lead to addictive behavior, but they also smother healthy social interaction, delay intellectual and emotional development, and serve as a gateway to all kinds of bad influences. Moreover, they present easy opportunities for online bullying, predatory behavior, and narcissistic mind games.
It would be easy to say that all of these factors contribute to the problem. No doubt, they obviously do. But what if there was a much simpler explanation, a primary cause beneath it all?
Here it is: maybe the kids aren’t sleeping enough.
A Generation of Sleep-Deprived Zombies
Consider the symptoms of sleep deprivation: irritability and moodiness, increased stress, hyperactivity, lack of focus, memory loss, increased substance abuse, and overeating. Nearly all adults can tell their story of woe when they decided to go without sleep for so many days. They felt awful, had no motivation, got little done, and probably became ill afterwards. Ironically, the same people who tell these stories will then brag two minutes later of how well they function without sleep (Trump does it too; it’s an American thing).
Perhaps adolescents insisting the same hides the overwhelming fact that so many of them are chronically sleep deprived. They cannot focus or remember anything; they cannot socialize or communicate clearly; they act out and become paranoid; they lack self-control and fidget; and they eat so much junk food that even their exceptional metabolisms cannot prevent the weight gain. It makes sense that sadness, stupidity, and general mediocrity will follow. And that addictions, aggressiveness, depression, loneliness, and obesity will follow after that.
To make matters worse, adults compound these problems by throwing therapy and medication into the mix. They confuse the symptom (not sleeping) with the disease (depression) and prescribe anti-depressants, weekly counseling, and take on a permissive attitude meant to boost their child’s self-esteem.
Before resorting to these kinds of interventions, it would clearly be better to first check on a few basic physiological needs: sleep, hydration, and diet. Most adults know enough to ask this of themselves if they are having a bad day, but young people assume they don’t need to worry about these things.
Recognizing all this, the solution seems simple: get the kids to bed. However, simple doesn’t necessarily mean easy. As any parent of a young toddler can attest, making a sleep schedule can be surprisingly difficult. Blocking out time for naps and sleeping through the night often cause parents to overhaul their whole lifestyle to accommodate their children. When the kids grow older and enter puberty, parents run up against even bigger obstacles when trying to make sure kids sleep enough, mainly deep-seated bad habits and school.
It’s no mystery where the bad habits keeping young people awake come from. Nearly everything in their world militates against sleep. Every new product is designed to keep them awake and addicted—there’s even whole branch of neuroscience devoted to it. From their very first years, children are exposed to the screen and grow attached to it. By the time they reach middle school, many will have spent at least a decade relying on a screen and will lack the capacity to put it down so they can sleep.
What worked as such a wonderful sedative when they were young now becomes a stimulant that keeps them up all hours of night texting, gaming, and watching videos. If the parent tries to take this away so late in the game, they can expect to experience extreme resistance—Ray Bradbury’s short story “The Veldt” anticipated this very situation half a century ago.
Of course, children themselves will automatically protest that it is school keeping them awake, not their Netflix bingeing. This is partially true. The school day is long, and any extracurricular activities make it even longer. A student doing marching band, or theatre, or any sport, can expect to put in a 10-12 hour day on a regular basis throughout the year.
And not only is the day long, but it starts quite early, usually around 8 a.m., but sometimes closer to 7 a.m. One of the reasons for this is to accommodate extracurricular schedules—as though it doesn’t occur to anyone to simply make the day shorter. Another (less mentioned) reason is to have a more subdued group of kids who are half asleep and less likely to misbehave, even if this may also make them less likely to learn or ever feel happy at school.
In many cases, American public schools, particularly ones in the suburbs where extracurricular involvement is high, start resembling schools in South Korea where students sleep during the day at their normal school while attending a hagwon at night. While South Korean students are well-known for their formidable academic achievement, they are also known for their ridiculous levels of stress and anxiety.
Some schools have pushed the school day later closer to 9 a.m., yet many of them have just used the later start time to pack in more activities and events beforehand. For most students, they will simply have to wait until their senior year or later to have reasonable hours. Before that happens they are subjected to long hours that would no doubt violate child labor laws if it happened anywhere else but a public school.
Prioritizing Sleep Above Everything Else
These obstacles may seem insurmountable, but they can be overcome. Simply knowing about them makes a difference. Due to the world’s preoccupation with so many other issues, it is easy to forget something as basic as going to sleep. Naturally, experts prefer this state of confusion because they can capitalize on parents thinking they need to do more when they should really do less.
Young adults need their sleep, and, because of the way the modern world is designed, parents will have to be more assertive. They need to pull their children away from the snares of smartphones and be strategic with their schedules. They will have to start prioritizing sleep in the same way they would prioritize academics or athletics—it might be worth noting that the very best athletes sleep an average of 10 hours or more.
More sleep may not solve all the issues of adolescence, but it can definitely help. It is, after all, the base of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Only after people have adequately addressed this elephant in the room that has somehow camouflaged itself should they set their minds on the myriad other issues assailing the American teenager.