Sleep is critical during the teenage years when adolescents undergo a great deal of physical, social, emotional, and cognitive development. The optimal amount of sleep for teens between the ages of 13 to 18 is around 8 to 10 hours a night, according to the National Sleep Foundation. This recommendation differs for both preteens and young adults.
As the teenage brain develops, sleep needs, bedtimes, and brain activity during sleep continue to shift. Although some changes in sleep are normal during adolescence, chronically missing sleep is both problematic and common. In fact, nearly 58% of middle schoolers and 73% of high schoolers do not get the recommended amount of sleep on school nights.
The consequences of this sleep deprivation are potentially serious and can impact a teen’s mood, health, and school performance. Knowing why it is difficult for teenagers to get adequate sleep and having tools to help teens get the sleep they need can help parents and caregivers address this issue.
The Importance of Sleep for Teens
Sleep is important for teens for many reasons. Sleep allows the heart and vascular system to recharge. It helps with learning, forming memories, and improving concentration and attention. During sleep, the body releases hormones that contribute to sexual maturation and the growth of muscles and bones while the immune system works to protect the body from disease.
Sleep affects various aspects of an adolescent’s daily life.
- Cognition and academic performance: Memory and attention are highly affected by sleep loss. With less sleep, mental tasks like homework can take longer to complete. Poor sleep can also affect other aspects of cognition, like reaction time, judgment, and alertness.
- Emotional health and mood: Both the quantity of sleep and bedtime affect a teen’s emotions. Sleep-deprived adolescents are more prone to developing anxiety and depression.
- Physical health: Getting enough sleep each night helps children to avoid the increased risk of weight gain, and respiratory illnesses associated with short sleep times.
- Driving safety: Traffic accidents are the number one cause of death for adolescents from 15 to 18 years old. Sleep loss puts teens at a high risk of drowsy driving, especially during long commutes.
Establishing good habits early in life can benefit teens as they transition to adulthood. Sleep patterns that are established in adolescence, like bedtime and the number of hours slept per night, tend to be maintained later in life. Sleep habits in high school may also predict both physical and mental health outcomes in early adulthood.
Why Teens Are Not Getting Enough Sleep
Several factors contribute to teenagers not getting enough sleep during this busy and complicated time in their lives. Changes in the brain during the teenage years affect sleep, and these changes are compounded by external pressures like social opportunities, light exposure from smartphones and computers, and early school start times.
Teenagers’ circadian rhythms undergo a natural shift toward a preference for evening activities and later onset of sleep. This shift is driven by changes in brain structure and wiring. The brain releases melatonin, the hormone that signals bedtime, later in the evening than it does in younger children or adults. At the same time, the sleep drive peaks later in the adolescent brain.
School and Extracurricular Responsibilities
Teenagers face time constraints on both ends of their school day. The average class start time is 8 a.m. for middle schools and high schools in the U.S. Teens may not go to bed early enough to get an optimal amount of sleep and still make it to school on time.
Time commitments outside of school also put pressure on a teenager’s sleep schedule. Students may participate in one or more extracurricular activities, like sports, lessons, or clubs. Teens may also have a part-time job during the evenings or on the weekends. On top of these commitments, high schoolers spend, on average, seven hours per week completing homework.
Around 89% of teenagers have their own smartphone, and adolescents spend an average of almost eight hours per day on these screens, not including time spent on their phones for school or homework.
Using electronics before bed is connected to worse quality and quantity of sleep in adolescents. Exposure to light just before bed can increase the time it takes to fall asleep, make it harder to stay asleep, and lead to daytime sleepiness.
Texting alone can cause problems with sleep. The anticipatory ding of text messages early in the evening can make it harder to wind down in preparation for sleep. Texts in the middle of the night also disrupt sleep.
Peer Pressure and Decision Making
Becoming more independent and making decisions for themselves is a part of a teen’s development. Teenagers may choose to delay their bedtime, caused in part by a fear of missing out (FoMO). FoMO is associated with a later bedtime, longer time needed to fall asleep, less sleep, and more daytime sleepiness.
Sleep Disorders and Mental Health
Around 4% of children are diagnosed with a sleep disorder, which disrupt quality rest by altering healthy sleep patterns. Some of the most common sleep disorders in children and adolescents include sleep apnea, sleepwalking, and insomnia.
As many as 30% of children experience insomnia, which makes it harder to fall asleep and stay asleep. In addition to disturbing sleep, insomnia can contribute to mental health conditions like anxiety, depression, substance use, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). In turn, sleep disorders can also influence the development or maintenance of insomnia.
Signs of Sleep Deprivation in Teens
Learning the signs of sleep deprivation in teens can help parents and caregivers to know when it is time to step in and advocate for better sleep.
- Daytime sleepiness: Teens who are not getting enough sleep may have trouble getting out of bed in the morning, difficulty focusing, or doze off during the day.
- Academic challenges: When teens do not get enough sleep, their grades can fall, and the number of sick days they take can increase due to illness.
- Poor decision-making: Irrational or impulsive behavior can be a sign that a teen is not getting enough sleep. Sleep loss can lead to school truancy and fights or bullying. It can also lead to more risk-taking, in the form of drinking and driving, texting while driving, and not wearing a seatbelt.
- Mood changes: Teenagers who do not get sufficient sleep may be more irritable, depressed, and anxious. Their self-esteem may also suffer. All of these can then affect a teen’s relationships and well-being.
- Health issues: Not getting enough sleep during development also means not getting enough of the hormones needed for building muscle mass and fighting off infections. Shorter sleep puts adolescents at a higher risk of influenza and respiratory infections, weight gain, and diabetes.
When to Talk to a Doctor
Teens should talk to their doctor if they are having persistent sleep difficulties, feeling very tired during the day, or noticing other symptoms of sleep loss. A conversation with a medical professional can also be helpful for teens who are being kept awake by medications, pain, or persistent feelings of anxiety or sadness.
How to Help Teens Get the Sleep They Need
Behavior change is hard for everyone, not just teens. Taking tips from caregivers may not be a teenager’s favorite activity but, if they are open to support and guidance, there are things they can do to improve their sleep.
- Focus on sleep hygiene: Many sleep issues in teens are attributed to poor sleep habits. Caregivers can provide teens with information about healthy sleep hygiene, including the importance of a relaxing nighttime routine and the risks of exposure to light in the evenings.
- Set a sleep schedule: Setting a consistent sleep schedule can help a teenager improve their sleep. Caregivers who support adolescents in setting a bedtime can help them sleep more, get better sleep, and feel less fatigued during the day.
- Limit screen time: Setting boundaries for cell phone and computer use can help, too. Controlling exposure to electronic media can translate to earlier bedtimes, more sleep, and better rest.
- Catch up on missed sleep: Napping to compensate for missed sleep can help to improve a teen’s ability to pay attention. Both short and long naps can help to increase alertness, but teens should avoid sleeping for too long or too close to bedtime. Prevent teens from sleeping in on weekends as this practice can make it difficult for the teen to get to bed at the appropriate time that evening.
- Reconsider commitments: Caregivers can talk with teenagers about their commitments and how to make sleep a priority. They may benefit from eliminating some activities from their schedules or having more help with homework.
- Involve teens with decisions: Ask the teen how they can help themselves feel better rested. Ask for suggestions on how to reach a common goal.
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