By Kimberly Yavorski
Lisa Lewis is a freelance journalist who has written about parenting, public health, and education for publications such as The New York Times, The Atlantic, and Los Angeles Times. She’s also the author of the new book, The Sleep-Deprived Teen: Why Our Teenagers Are So Tired, and How Parents and Schools Can Help Them Thrive. Lisa recently spoke with us, sharing how she became an expert on teen sleep and offering suggestions on how parents can help make a difference.
Q: In the introduction to your book, you explain that struggles with your tired teenager made you question why high school starts so early and how, as a journalist, you decided to investigate the topic further. Were you aware of the potential dangers of sleep deprivation at that point?
Lewis: I didn’t yet know all the ramifications; all I knew was what I was seeing. My son was exhausted. The 7:30 start time was earlier than my kids had ever started school. The mental health data became much more apparent as I dove into the research, but it was obvious from talking to other local parents that other kids had the same issue.
I realized almost immediately that this was bigger than our local community. There was this large body of research dating back decades. As a parenting journalist, I was looking to make a difference locally even as I continued researching and writing about it. I hooked up with Start School Later as an information source, then realized quickly that I can start a chapter here and that this would help me with local advocacy.
Q: Can you share more about your advocacy?
Lewis: I have been active in causes all along, in my kids’ schools and various political causes at the local level. But this grew beyond any advocacy work I had previously done. My words ended up being the catalyst for the new California law. That isn’t something I would have predicted at the outset. One of our California state senators read the op-ed I wrote in the LA Times, and it resonated with him. He decided to look into the issue and introduced a bill. I didn’t expect that something I wrote would lead to this.
Q: How did your teen react?
Lewis: I think both my kids are proud of me, but at one point, my son did say, sort of sadly, “Too bad that even if it happens, it’s not going to happen in time for me.”
Q: Was there a downside to your involvement?
Lewis: A local reporter covering the legislative process wanted to come over and watch my son getting ready in the morning and us going to school. I said thank you, but no thank you because that felt like an intrusion on my son’s privacy. But I did share my son’s first name. They used my son’s name in the lede and talked about how he would collapse every afternoon at home and take a nap, which was not true; he came home tired.
They made it sound like it was some sort of weakness, and he got razzed about that by one of the football coaches that afternoon. I felt awful. I thought my son was going to be furious with me. As it turned out, he laughed it off. But I was still fuming that someone would act like it was a weakness… that napping or needing sleep was a weakness. It’s essential for life. Every single person needs to sleep in order to stay alive. You can last longer without food than you can without sleep. I have not given my kids’ names since in interviews.
Q: What advice would you give parents wanting to follow your lead?
Lewis: First of all, don’t go it alone. Tap into the experience and knowledge of other people who have done this elsewhere or who are in the process of doing it. Questions that come up likely have been answered in other communities; there are resources and other sources of information to draw from. Writing a letter to the editor, connecting on social media, submitting an op-ed to your local newspaper, and organizing a gathering or presentation at your school are great ways to get the word out. Figure out what works for you and your local situation and then stay open to opportunities. New ones will present themselves as you stay involved.
Q: About a third of your book explains how parents can help teens get more sleep. Aside from changing school start times, which will take time to achieve, what would you say is the most effective, yet easy-to-implement thing parents can do?
Lewis: Starting school later is absolutely an important part of the equation; I would say it’s an essential part. When schools start too early, it cuts into teen sleep. The reality is they’re not able to fall asleep until about 11 because of the circadian rhythm shift that happens at the onset of puberty. And they need eight to ten hours of sleep. That being said, there are other ways we can help our teens get more sleep.
My advice at the broadest level is to make sleep a priority: Help our teens understand they need eight to ten hours of sleep, and model sleep-friendly behaviors. Encourage them to develop a wind-down routine, some sequence of steps to prepare for bed every night. This is powerful. It’s something I definitely have been more mindful about since doing this research and talking to the experts. Ideally, bedtime routines involve not using technology right before bed; the official recommendations are no tech an hour before bedtime. Help them see that we, too, prioritize sleep.
Q: Will there be another book—The Sleep Deprived Parent?
Lewis: Right now I am still tremendously focused on teen sleep because there is a huge need out there, based on the current statistics of how rampant teen sleep deprivation is.
Q: So you won’t rest until all high schools start later?
Lewis: You’re welcome to say that, yeah. Helping get this law passed in California was a tremendous accomplishment. It is the first state law requiring healthy school start times. Other public health issues are handled at the state level—things like asbestos and lead paint—so this makes sense. Not only is California the first state to do it, but it’s a state that often serves as a bellwether to others. There are active bills right now in NY and NJ. So far, only one state has passed a law, so there’s still quite a lot of opportunity to help make this happen in the rest of the country.