We all know about the epidemic of overscheduled children — one of modern society's most well-documented ailments. But now an article in the Oct.15 New York magazine warns that the overscheduling — and the overstimulation that goes with it — is causing kids to lose at least an hour of sleep, and thereby setting their cognitive skills back by years.
The author, Po Bronson, began with the example of Morgan, a 10-year-old fifth-grader from Roxbury, N.J., who plays soccer, but whose first love is swimming, with "year-round workouts that have broadened her shoulders. She's also a violinist in the school orchestra, with practices and lessons each week. Every night, Morgan sits down to homework before watching Flip This House or another show with her mother. Morgan has always appeared to be an enthusiastic, well-balanced child."
But, the author soon pointed out, once Morgan spent an academic year in a demanding teacher's classroom, she found it difficult to unwind at night. Despite hitting the sack at 9:30 p.m., she would lie awake in frustration till 11:30 — sometimes even midnight — her arms nearly strangling her "leopard-fur pillow."
When she couldn't sleep, Morgan would generally turn back to her studies, attempting to make sure that her grades would not suffer. Instead, noted Bronson, she began falling apart emotionally. "During the day," the reporter wrote, "she was noticeably crabby and prone to crying easily. Occasionally, Morgan nearly fell asleep in class."
When her troubled mother decided to take Morgan to the family pediatrician, she was blown off by the man, who seemed to have little interest in the problem. He said, "So she gets tired once in a while. She'll outgrow it."
According to Bronson, this doctor's attitude is fairly typical. Surveys by the National Sleep Foundation show that "90 percent of American parents think their child is getting enough sleep. The kids themselves say otherwise. In those same surveys, 60 percent of high schoolers report extreme daytime sleepiness. In another study, a quarter admit their grades have dropped because of it. Over 25 percent fall asleep in class at least once a week."
There are a number of causes for this lost hour, noted the author. Overscheduling is one, but so are lots of homework, lax rules about bedtime, TV-watching and cell phones permitted in bedrooms. Guilt also is a factor; when parents get home from work after dark, they want to spend some time with their kids and so refuse to play the disciplinarian.
Until recently, said Bronson, people ignored this fading 60 minutes. Now, however, it's being shown that it's having serious consequences (one of the major researchers, in fact, is Dr. Avi Sadeh of Tel Aviv University). "Because children's brains are a work-in-progress until the age of 21, and because much of that work is done while a child is asleep, this lost hour appears to have an exponential impact on children that it simply doesn't have on adults."