Sleep scientists are desperate for the general population to heed their wake-up call and take the issues surrounding adolescent sleep seriously.
Despite an enormous amount of scientific knowledge that has been collected about sleep over a half century, the general population is almost completely ignorant of the most basic sleep principles -- including that kids aren't getting enough of it, they said.
"Part of that is because of our culture, which is sort of 'push hard, lose sleep,'" according to longtime sleep researcher Mark R. Rosekind, Ph.D., president and chief scientist of Cupertino-based Alertness Solutions.
"There's a sort of bravado about that," he said. "The classic, of course, is 'I'll sleep when I'm dead.'"
A growing fear among sleep experts is that America's high school students, who are leading lives of increased stress, are suffering the effects of sleep deprivation and from adults' lack of awareness of adolescent sleep needs.
"If you're getting less than seven hours of sleep, it can impair your performance like you've been drinking," Rosekind said. Missing two hours of sleep a night is the physical equivalent of having a blood-alcohol content of 0.05 percent, or two to three beers, he said.
When it comes to fatigue-related vehicle accidents, teenagers comprise the leading risk group.
Another prominent sleep researcher, William C. Dement, Ph.D., of Stanford University, has been leading a wake-up crusade against sleep deprivation for years, especially relating to the effects on teenagers.
"All students are really, across the board, curtailing their sleep," Dement said.
Dement has been conducting "Multiple Sleep Latency" tests to establish "sleep tendency" patterns among Stanford and high school students. He has found that students spend most of the day in a state of drowsiness, owing to a lack of sleep.
"Drowsy is, in a sense, you are falling asleep," he said. "And if you don't do something, sleep is literally seconds away."
Living in a constant state of drowsiness can lead to "progressive impairment" of their ability to function, he added.
Both researchers agree that school work, athletics, mental and physical health are all affected by the amount of sleep an adolescent gets and that sleep science shows that adolescents require more sleep than any other segment of the population.
The bottom line is that as children reach adolescence their bodies begin to need at least 9.5 hours of sleep a night, they said.
Teenage biological clocks also begin to "drift later," meaning that the adolescent wants to go to bed around midnight and wake up about 9 a.m.
High school schedules that start at 8 a.m. or earlier do not allow students to get the amount of sleep they need, even if they manage their schedules responsibly, experts said. The result of continual loss of sleep is accumulation of "sleep debt," a term and concept that Dement pioneered.
Teens usually make up that debt on weekends, which explains the phenomenon of teenagers sleeping until well past noon.
"To not do so would be disastrous," Dement warned.
Both Dement and Rosekind are increasingly concerned about the culture in most high schools that regards sleep as optional, especially when sleep interferes with grades or entertainment.
But their warnings are met skepticism and ignorance.
"We all sleep, so we think we're experts. Everyone thinks their personal experience is fact," Rosekind said.
Eight out of 10 people failed a simple 10-question survey on basic knowledge of sleep needs conducted by the National Sleep Foundation.
Dement blames the lack of education generally and in schools specifically.
"Sleep teaching is really, really stagnant, and the knowledge is encyclopedic," he said.
Rosekind found that the average medical student spends less than an hour of class time learning about sleep during his or her entire medical education.
"Our doctors aren't learning about it, and in general people don't even know the basics," he said.
To help spread the word at Stanford, Dement teaches a "Sleep and Dreams" class to undergraduates -- one of the most popular classes on campus, and one that has given him almost celebrity-status due to his use of humor to make his points.
"I'm willing to be flamboyant in the interest of getting the message to more people," Dement said.
But even after people are taught about the importance of sleep, they are reluctant to reorganize their lives to get more sleep. American culture in particular is at odds with the hopes of sleep scientists.
"We are explorers and entrepreneurs, always pushing the envelope," Rosekind said. "There's a huge bureaucracy to move around if you want to change it. It's a huge system you have to shift."
But Rosekind believes people are beginning to be more receptive to the sleep needs of adolescents and that the gears of change have begun to move.
"Maybe in the last five years, we're starting to see some cracks" in the solid barriers resisting change, he said.