I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead

I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead

I don’t usually take significant life advice from a Bon Jovi concert shirt, but back in the mid 1990’s, when I was travelling across Europe with my girlfriend at the time, I came across someone wearing a shirt promoting the band’s 1992 “I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead” Tour.  Not having heard that expression previously, it struck me at the time as something of a revelation.  “That’s right,” I mused to myself, “Forget getting eight hours of sleep each night.  I’m going to be sleeping for all of eternity after I am dead.  I’m going to spend each and every possible moment I have awake and living vibrantly.  Carpe f’ing diem!”  And for years following that episode, that saying became something of a personal mantra for me, a hallmark of the way I lived my life.  But now that I am in my 50’s, all I really want is time for a good, long nap.  Seems that as you get older, the unbridled sense of elan of our youth morphs into something more akin to mid-life malaise.  But still, as I hear and read about the sleeping habits of my students and their generation, I can’t help thinking that they are missing the point of both perspectives. 


I still very much ascribe to the notion of living my life to the fullest, of trying to get the absolute most out of each and every day.  And yes, that means limiting my sleep to what is necessary to keeping me healthy, happy and alert.  That amount has changed over the span of my lifetime, but as I have aged, I now find that the sleep I need for a healthy lifestyle lies somewhere between seven to eight hours a night.  But for teenagers, that number is generally much higher.  In fact, The American Academy of Sleep Medicine has recommended that children aged 6–12 years should regularly sleep 9–12 hours per 24 hours and teenagers aged 13–18 years should sleep 8–10 hours per 24 hours.  That’s because young people in this age group are still growing, both physically and mentally.  Their bodies and their brains require more sleep in order to feed that growth.  Without adequate sleep, kids are prone to a host to a number of health issues during this critical period of development.  Children and adolescents who do not get enough sleep have a higher risk of obesity, diabetes, injuries, poor mental health, and problems with attention and behavior.  The problem is that the majority of them simply aren’t getting the sleep they need.

A recent study published by the CDC suggests that 57% of Middle Schoolers and 73% of High Schoolers are not meeting the recommended sleep targets for their age group.  Worse yet, sleep habits have plummeted over the past two decades.  A 2015 report from Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health found that fewer teenagers than ever are sleeping enough.  The issue is particularly pronounced in young women and minorities.  More than ever, I am constantly hearing my students tell me that they were up at 1am on a school night, leading one of my students to recently remark that staying up way too late has become the humblebrag of this generation.  Yeah, that’s right, not getting sleep is now somehow cool.

But the real issue here is WHY these kids are staying up so damn late.  I’ve heard some of them suggest that it’s because they have so much homework.  Unfortunately, however, that simply isn’t the case.  Not that these kids would know, but they actually do far less homework than any generation since WWII.  A Carnegie Mellon study found that homework levels have declined steadily since the 1950’s with students now averaging just under an hour of homework a night.  While there has been a moderate increase in participation in some extracurricular activities, the differential over time is remarkably nominal and simply cannot begin to explain the precipitous decline in sleep over that same period.  Unfortunately, we all know what the real explanation is here, and it has nothing to do with the encumbrances these kids have on their free time.

No, the real answer lies in all those devices.  Entertainment screen time among US teens has increased significantly in recent years. In 2015, American 13 to 18-year-olds averaged 6 hours 40 minutes of screen time each day. That figure rose to 7 hours 22 minutes in 2019 and climbed to 8 hours 39 minutes as of 2021.  That’s almost nine full hours per day spent looking at a stupid screen.  They aren’t going to bed because they are staying up watching TikTok videos and posting on social media.  And today’s parents simply lack the guts to walk in their rooms, take their phones away, and tell them to go to sleep.  The result is a generation of unhealthy young people sleepwalking through their existences with all the vibrancy and flair of a heroin-addicted koala bear.

I’m not suggesting that there isn’t a time and place for staying up late.  I still live by that old Bon Jovi motto when it matters most.  But do so for something worthwhile.  Don’t do it frying your brain on a phone or playing video games.  Stay up late to watch the aurora borealis.  Do it to stay up dancing.  Do it to stay up laughing with friends.  Do it while making bad decisions.

According to his autobiography, Keith Richards once stayed awake for 9 days straight during the hedonistic, drug-fuelled era of their 1978 ‘Some Girls’ album, and I can absolutely assure you that not a single minute of it was spent looking at his phone or watching tv.  I’m not encouraging America’s youth to go on rock star-type benders, but I am suggesting that they should be meeting their bodies’ need for adequate sleep, with punctuated episodes of staying up late for equally necessary frivolity and reckless endangerment.  Let’s just say it seems to be working just fine for Keith Richards.


Steven Craig is the author of the best-selling novel WAITING FOR TODAY, as well as numerous published poems, short stories, and dramatic works.  Read his blog TRUTH: In 1000 Words or Less every THURSDAY at www.waitingfortoday.com