On Being a Teen Sleep Advocate: A Conversation with Lisa L. Lewis
The Sleep-Deprived Teen: Why Our Teenagers Are So Tired, and How Parents and Schools Can Help Them Thrive
by Lisa L. Lewis
Mango 2022; 280 pp., $17.62 (Paperback)Buy Book
In 2016, Lisa L. Lewis, a parenting journalist and mom, wrote an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times called, “Why School Should Start Later in the Day.” It struck a chord with readers so much that it caught the attention of California State Senator Anthony Portantino. After he read the article, he put forth a bill to mandate later start times for middle and high schools. This unexpectedly catapulted Lewis to the helm of a teen sleep movement.
Lewis, who has a bachelor’s degree from the University of California, Berkeley, a master’s degree from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism and an MFA from Mills College, had previously worked on a family memoir and assumed it would be the first book she published. Prior to having a teenager of her own, she never contemplated authoring a nonfiction parenting book on teen sleep deprivation. For this achievement, she credits her ability to remain open to different writing forms throughout her career. For our teenagers, that’s a good thing.
Profiles Editor Holly Rizzuto Palker met Lewis at the Parenting Journalist Conference and learned that she was a Literary Mama profiles contributor for many years. Her book, The Sleep-Deprived Teen: Why Our Teenagers Are So Tired, and How Parents and Schools Can Help Them Thrive (Mango, 2022), is an outgrowth of her previous work on the topic, including her role in helping get California’s landmark legislation on healthy school start times passed. Lewis has written for The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Atlantic, TIME, the Los Angeles Times, Slate, and Your Teen, among others. She’s a parent to two teens, who inspire much of what she writes. Lewis lives in California with her family.
This interview was conducted via Zoom and has been edited for length and clarity.
Holly Rizzuto Palker: Ultimately, this one opinion piece led you to become an activist and, five years later, to publish a book. What initially sparked your idea to write about this topic and then develop this passion?
Lisa L. Lewis: I had been writing about various topics that impacted my oldest child, my son, when he entered freshman year at our local public high school. Although it wasn’t my intention, high school was incredible fodder for my work. It started at 7:30 a.m., and it felt early. I drove him every day and although he was in the car, he wasn’t alert. Clearly, that was not an optimal time to be going to school. Then, he’d come home at the end of the day exhausted. So I put on my journalism hat and tried to figure out why our school started so early in the morning. The answer was twofold. First, it had been that way for many years in our district. In fact, nobody could remember when the school hadn’t started this early. Second, I realized the link between early start times and teen sleep was a much bigger issue and not just in our community. I discovered that there is a huge body of research on this subject that dated back decades. So, although this wasn’t a new issue, it so happened that my timing was fortuitous because I tapped into it at a time when attention to it was hitting a critical mass. The same month I wrote the op-ed, the CDC released a baseline report on school start times around the country. The statistics showed that only 18% of the middle and high schools in the country were meeting an 8:30 a.m. or later school start time guideline put forth by the American Academy of Pediatrics.
HRP: How did you feel as a mom and a writer when you realized that the world connected so deeply with this subject? What was that moment like for you? Did you wonder if you were ready to take this on?
LL: It was intimidating at first. I had to grow into taking on a larger role. I was a parenting journalist and I was more comfortable sitting at a desk than speaking in public. So that was a huge leap for me. I certainly could not have predicted how it was all going to unfold over the next several years. In my trajectory as a writer, I never would’ve predicted that I’d end up writing a nonfiction parenting book on teen sleep deprivation. If you’d asked me five years ago, I probably would’ve said I’d write a book on sports safety because that was another issue I covered. Prior to that, I would’ve assumed I was going to write a family memoir.
HRP: The Stanford Sleep Camp, which you discuss at the beginning of the book, was an interesting medical study that highlighted the negative impact of sleep deprivation on teens. The study even looked at catastrophic outcomes like teen suicide and car accidents. The increase in these outcomes associated with sleep deprivation is horrifying. Your thorough research bolstered your position to urge schools to adopt later start times.
LL: The evolution from being a parent who noted this dangerous issue, to a journalist who started writing about it, to acquiring a book deal was truly an . . . evolution. My first article on the topic was in the spring of my son’s freshman year. I’d reached out to a nonprofit advocacy group called “Start School Later,” and eventually I started my own local chapter. They were a tremendous resource. My subsequent article, the Los Angeles Times op-ed that Senator Portantino (who lives in Los Angeles) connected with, really took off. Ironically, his daughter’s high school was having conversations about whether to move the start time back later. He looked into the issue further and ended up introducing a bill in the state. You can’t script this. That’s why I say it was an evolution. I ended up testifying in front of the California State Assembly Education Committee. The whole legislative journey was quite lengthy. Governor Gavin Newsom ultimately signed the bill into law in October 2019. It finally went into effect this past July 1. It’s pretty momentous because California is the first state in the nation to require later school start times. There are active bills right now in New York and New Jersey. So fingers crossed.
HRP: In your book, you say that kids from marginalized groups are at higher risk for sleep deprivation-related problems. Do you have plans to help introduce this way of thinking into communities that might not have the resources to make later start times a priority in their school districts?
LL: This is one of the main reasons why having this happen at a statewide level is so important, as opposed to a local level where there is a parent, superintendent, or another school administrator who is familiar with the research and advocating for this change. It’s also a matter of trying to spread the message that sleep is an equity issue and sleep deprivation does have equity implications. Research shows there are some student populations that sleep worse than others overall. And to recognize that is important. Gender plays a role too. For instance, those who are biologically female tend to sleep worse. At the onset of puberty, you’ll see these hormonal differences. For example, the menstrual cycle can impact sleep.
HRP: I thought the key was calling it a public health issue. It makes it more pressing for parents.
LL: Absolutely. It is a public health issue. A person can survive longer without food than they can without sleep. It’s an essential part of life. Our teens are functioning despite it, but they’re certainly not functioning better as a result of being sleep-deprived.
HRP: What kept you so tenacious over the five-year span that it took to see this bill approved and for changes to occur? Why didn’t you give up and move on? You had done so much already.
LL: I could not have predicted at the outset how this was all going to play out. I suppose I made a decision to follow this path and see how far it would go. I thought I’m going to get involved in this cause, and then that just continued to evolve. The whole political process was something I had never been involved with to that level before. Watching the legislative journey was an incredible learning experience. I saw all the different hurdles and all that takes place behind the scenes. It was a combination of those of us who were volunteers, sleep experts who were providing support every step of the way, and Senator Portantino, who was shepherding the bill through the whole political process. So I stayed, immersed in it. I wasn’t quite as involved in the daily back-and-forth in the final year because I had started working on the book proposal, which I learned is really a business and marketing plan. Learning how to create a successful book proposal took me many months.
HRP: Do your kids appreciate your education on this topic?
LL: There were definitely points where both kids were sick of hearing about everything I was learning about sleep. But I do know that there are various pieces of advice that have stuck with them. As an example, my daughter has twinkling lights strung around her room, and she was interested in learning that setting them to warmer colors (rather than blue) in the evening was more sleep-friendly.
HRP: Do your children ever get upset that their personal lives sometimes influence your writing?
LL: I think as a parenting writer, family privacy is an important topic. When my son was in tenth grade, the local newspaper interviewed me about writing the book. His name was right there in the lede. It was an anecdote about how he came home every afternoon and collapsed because he was so tired, which was greatly overstating it. Luckily, it didn’t bother him to the extent I thought it might. But it was a learning moment for me, about providing his name. I think it’s a huge point for parents to know where those boundaries are, of what you choose to share. Our kids have a right to their own privacy. In this particular situation, I wasn’t divulging his deep, dark secrets, which certainly can come up, depending on what parents are writing about, but I still felt awful.
HRP: What did you learn along this journey that you were able to put into practice in your own household?
LL: I’m definitely much more intentional about making sleep a priority—not just for my kids, but for myself as well. I know that I’m a kinder, more patient person when I’m well rested!
HRP: What is your most important sleep tip?
LL: Have a wind-down routine at any age. It depends on what works for you or your teen individually. But having a sequence of steps that primes you to go to bed is essential.
HRP: I go to bed early and sometimes I lose track of what my teens are doing. So I have a rule that, at the established bedtime, the phone has to go downstairs to the kitchen for charging. But it’s so difficult to enforce.
LL: There is so much we can talk about with the whole technology piece; it’s an issue for adults too. Across the board, it absolutely plays into sleep deprivation. It is tricky to enforce house rules but it is absolutely the way to go. The official recommendation from the AAP is no tech use an hour before bedtime. That’s where I get back to spreading the message and making sleep a priority, even for yourself. Ultimately, your kids will have to take ownership of their own relationship with technology. It’s tricky when you think about what we’re up against.
HRP: What do you hope to achieve as a writer and as a mother by publishing this book?
LL: I hope The Sleep-Deprived Teen helps spread awareness of how crucial sleep is for our kids. At the outset of this journey, I never would have predicted that I’d end up playing a key role in getting start times changed statewide. While it didn’t happen in time for my son’s high school years, my daughter has benefitted. Parenting (and in particular, parenting teens!) can be stressful enough. Helping our teens get enough sleep is a tangible way we can help them, and I hope this book will be a helpful resource for other parents.
HRP: Has this work led you to delve into other public health topics related to teens? What’s next for you?
LL: I’m still immersed in and obsessed with sleep. As I mentioned, California is the first (and only) state to implement this change. So there’s still a tremendous opportunity for this to happen in every other state in the country. I think a big piece of that is raising awareness among parents about why teen sleep is so important, and why it is important to make these changes. So many parents don’t realize the official recommendation from the National Sleep Foundation is 8-10 hours of sleep up until age 18. Data shows only 22% of teens are getting at least that.
HRP: So you see yourself continuing to educate?
LL: Yes, I see myself continuing to help people understand the ramifications of teen sleep deprivation—everything from mental health to drowsy driving. I see myself continuing to help people understand that school start times are a key piece of this equation. When schools start too early, it makes it virtually impossible for teens to get enough sleep. There is a biological underpinning for why teens don’t fall asleep as early in the evening. Their circadian rhythms shift when they start puberty. So they’re not feeling sleepy until about 11:00 at night. You do the math. I think that’s really the message that is so important for people to understand.
HRP: How do you feel about becoming an activist?
LL: With this particular issue, I started out just trying to make a difference locally and it definitely snowballed. That said, though, I’ve been active in other activities related to both of my kids’ schools all along, and have also been active in various causes I feel strongly about. We all obviously have limits on how much time we can devote to volunteering and advocacy, but we do have the power to help make a difference.