Sleep Deprivation and Teens

Sleep deprivation & teens
The Parenting Question this week is from Judy, on Sleep Deprivation: “How much sleep do our teens need?”


It has been said that we have a chronically sleep deprived generation.


Why are Our Teens Struggling with Sleep Deprivation?

Back in 2006 the National Sleep Foundation found that more than half of the parents surveyed said their 15-to-17-year-olds routinely get seven or fewer hours of sleep. That is less than most adults, at a time when the brain needs more sleep for growth, development, and learning.

In 2014, a combined project by Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard, Manchester and Surrey Universities declared,

‘Society has become supremely arrogant in ignoring the importance of sleep’. 

Prof Russell Foster, at the University of Oxford, says people are getting between one and two hours less sleep a night than 60 years ago. Encouragingly, he does believe people have become more aware of this as an issue, but are still working our what to do about it.


What’s the link with Technology, Teens and Sleep Deprivation?

The combined study above cites, living in a 24hour society, coupled with technology overuse, as part of the issue.

On local shores, a research report released this week, by the Gonski Institute for Education at UNSW Sydney, revealed (unsurprisingly) digital media and technologies as a great distraction in Australian family life.

The report indicates that;

‘The positive side of access to digital technologies is tempered by negative aspects, which can have an impact on children’s mental health and wellbeing. This was highlighted in one of the themes of the research – ‘the dual power of technology’.


“Causal research in this space is rare because it is difficult to establish directionality and cause and effect, but one direct consequence of increasing time spent on digital media and technologies is declining quantity, and often also quality, of sleep.”

There are numerous brain studies which show that melatonin, a hormone associated with nighttime, signals that it is time to sleep.

Both the Gonski report and Harvard Medical School highlight the effects of blue light on Melatonin production.

‘Melatonin is a hormone that influences circadian rhythms in our body and this can be suppressedby any kind of light. But it is blue light emitted by smartphone and computer screens at night that does it particularly powerfully.’

‘Blue wavelengths—which are beneficial during daylight hours because they boost attention, reaction times, and mood—seem to be the most disruptive at night.’
(They also found that teenagers are more vulnerable to the effects of light than adults.)

What do we know about the benefits of sleep?

Well, we know that the studies on technology and sleep are complex.

But we also know that sleep is vitally important for learning, memory, brain development and health.

Sleep influences 4 main areas of our lives:

  1. Physiological (body systems; like cardiovascular and endocrine systems and physical health)
  2. Psychological (emotional and mental health)
  3. Psychosocial (behaviour, peer and family relationships)
  4. Cognitive (learning, attention, memory, problem solving)

What Happens When Sleep Is Lacking for Our Teens?

When we systematically allow our teens to go to bed late we couldn’t design a worse system for learning and wellbeing.

Simply – a sleep deprived teen cannot be a resilient teen.

Physical Health 

We know that during adolescence, the circadian rhythm shifts, and teens feel more awake later at night. Yet, switching on a screen or video game just before bedtime will push off sleepiness even later.

When we are sleep deprived, our physical strength and ability to perform in sport or physical activities is affected. Teens level of alertness during the day at school declines.

Tiredness can also sometimes be misdiagnosed as ADHD and poor attention skills.

Anecdotally, my colleagues and I also sometimes see teens misdiagnosed with ADHD, depression or other issues, when they are in fact sleep deprived and nobody has questioned their sleep habits. Additionally, teens already struggling with anxiety or depression, learning difficulties etc, will find their symptoms exacerbated when their brains are starved of sleep.


Cognitive Health

Tiredness affects memory and processing ability – which of course affects school performance.


Psychological/Emotional Health

Some teens display tiredness, not by yawning or falling asleep on the desk at school, but by emotional or psychological outbursts. This might look like: crying, bouts of anger; moodiness, irritability, self-worth issues, depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts.

… and so teen relationships suffer.


Social Health

Adolescence is already a time when the developing brain is working overtime, to figure out relationships and appropriate behaviour.

Lack of sleep thus negatively affects peer and family relationships, as well as interactions with teachers and other adults in their world.


So what can we do with this information?

I especially loved Jocelyn Brewer’s comment on the Gonski report, in the SMH
“More statistics that freak you into doing nothing isn’t very helpful.”

I usually provide stats and research for parents and educators who like to know that there is something backing my recommendations on teen wellbeing.

So here is my, hopefully, ‘non-freak-out-able’ advice on sleep hygiene and your teen.


The Role of Parents

Adolescence is a time in which our children naturally strive for autonomy and want to make their own decisions, including when to go to sleep. Yet, experts agree that teens do better, in terms of mood and fatigue levels, if parents set the bedtime. One that is realistic for the needs of their child and family.


How Much Sleep is Recommended?

The experts agree that:

  • Older teenagers need 8 to 10 hours of sleep per night
  • Younger teens need 9 to 11 hours

Supporting Sleep Hygiene Practices

Try this:

  • Encourage teens to be moderately active during the day – this boost sleep at night.. Even taking the dog for a walk is helpful!
  • Don’t over-schedule your teen with too many activities.
  • Reduce afternoon naps, if this is creating a jet lag effect (discussed below).
  • Engage in reading, rather than screens before bed.
  • Encourage the use of their bed for sleep. i.e. Avoid watching television/screens in bed.
  • Perhaps our biggest challenge (I know it’s mine!) would be modelling good screen and sleep habits to our teens.
  • Maintain a good bedtime routine – which signals to the brain that it is time to wind down (see below)
  • Talk to teens about what they notice about their behaviour, emotions, mood etc, when they are consistently lacking in sleep.
  • Ask them to brainstorm what a healthy screen time balance looks like for them.

Recommended Pre-sleep Wind Down

Get into a good bedtime routine – this gets the brain prepared for sleep.

  • Eat dinner a few hours before bed (a small snack later on is fine).
  • Start by switching to smaller screens. Turn down the brightness and work toward turning screens off an hour before bed time.
  • Eventually, switch off screens an hour before bedtime – at a minimum.
  • Try out software on devices which automatically warm up the colours on computer screens and handhelds in the evenings. i.e. More reds and yellows at sunset and returns to normal at sunrise.
  • Limit caffeine in the evenings.
  • Read a book at bedtime, rather than play games or watch shows with flashing lights and movement.
  • Be sure their bed is comfortable, and the bedroom is cool, dark and quiet.
  • Practice relaxation breathing at bedtime. i.e. Use slow breaths – in through the nose, out through the mouth.
  • Again, try to get your teen on board with some healthy pre-sleep activities that they think will work for them.

Does Sleeping in On Weekends Help?

Many teens sleep less during the week and sleep in on the weekends to compensate (I know I did!). I think that sleeping in on weekend is okay and quite normal in the teen years (ahem – I still love a good nana nap). But many teens accumulate such a backlog of sleep debt during the week, that they don’t actually recover on the weekend. They then still wake up exhausted on Monday morning.

The shifting of sleep patterns on the weekend are, according to Carskadon, ‘out of sync with their weekday rhythm’ and is referred to as, ‘social jet lag.’


Final Thoughts

What About Evening Homework?

This is the question I get asked regularly, when I talk about teens and sleep.

As a start, when homework needs to be done, turn the brightness setting down on laptops & tablets (make use of the aforementioned ‘sunset’ tones). Where practical, encourage teens to do homework earlier in the evening and try to have a good follow on wind down/relaxing activity before bed. E.g save their shower for after homework and just before bedtime.


Teens should not regularly be doing homework, sport or hours of musical instrument practice much past 8:30pm for younger teens and  9pm for older teens. (This will depend on your child’s scheduled wake up time and school starting time. i.e in South Africa schools start at 7:30 and in Australia they start around 8:45). 

I mention instrument practice because some teens are expected to rehearse for an hour or 2 every night, after homework, which leads to a 10pm+ bedtime.

Later bedtimes, on RARE occasions, for short periods, or if there is an important assignment due, will naturally happen. However, if this happens regularly it will knock out your child’s sleep cycle. Contact the school, ask about their homework policy, talk about your child’s sleep and request an adjustment to homework.

Schools are crying out for teens to get enough sleep and are usually amazing in supporting parents and teens in this.


My point to ponder this week → Is there one thing you can do, to help your teen improve their sleep hygiene this week?


Here is my podcast on this topic?.  I’d love it if you had a listen and shared with a parent of teens.

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