going to survive in our constantly connected, constantly advancing culture. Just think of all the devices that you—and your teen—live with every minute of the day—as well as during the night. Is that a pager I see on your belt? Is there a cell phone in your bag? When did you last check your e-mail? Is that a fax I hear coming in from across the ocean—at 3:30 a.m. your time?
The need to “stay in the game” has pushed us to expect much more from our bodies. But we are expecting those bodies to keep up on less sleep and therefore less time for repair and renewal—which makes us unable to evolve in tandem with our environment.
That may spell disaster not just for us but for our children, because one of the ways humans evolve is through natural selection—the process through which the organisms that are best suited to their environment survive and pass their genetic material on to the next generation. By raising sleep-deprived teens, we may be putting them at greater risk for long-term disease complications; we know that sleep deprivation weakens the immune system. But until more studies are done, we won’t know if sleep deprivation during the teen years has more farreaching implications on adult health and longevity.
We do know that teens today, just like adults, are much more sleep deprived than they used to be. A study by Roseanne Armitage reported that 24 percent of college students in 1978 complained of being constantly tired; in 2002 that number exploded to 71 percent. We also know that negative impacts result not just from sleepiness but from sustained wakefulness—our bodies just can’t operate at full tilt when we push ourselves to stay awake for more than 15 or 16 hours.
Teens, of course, are in touch with their friends, as well as the rest of the universe, for more than 16 hours a day. My latest reminder of that fact came on a recent trip with my daughter Elyssa to tour several colleges. After getting completely lost looking for our motel the first night, I staggered into bed in our shared room and she eventually followed. But at 1:00 a.m. her cell phone rang—and she answered it! After talking to her friend for a few minutes, she headed back to sleep, and I tried to do the same. But at 2:30 the phone rang again! This time Elyssa slept right through the ring—but I bet you can guess who didn’t.
Our 24/7 society is wreaking havoc with our natural rhythms and