Here’s a recent column from The Wall Street Journal on an often puzzling and frustrating issue for parents: teens’ sleep habits. Anyone who lives in close proximity to a teenager knows what I’m talking about. We know that adolescent tendency toward night owl behavior isn’t a matter of preference. There are biological changes at play during puberty that drive teens toward sleeping in and staying up later.
Studies have shown that during adolescence, circadian rhythms change. These include a shift in the timing of the release of the sleep-hormone melatonin, and changes in sensitivity to light at certain times of day and night. These biological adjustments to teens’ circadian clocks result in significant transformation of adolescents sleep patterns:
These biological shifts are not confined to humans. Studies show that other mammals also experience similar changes in sleep patterns during adolescence. Research also indicates that these biological changes—and their impact on sleep— begin often before physical changes of puberty are apparent. As early as age 11, children’s bedtimes are delayed, and total sleep amounts are reduced.
Biological changes are an important part of the teen-sleep picture, but they don’t tell the whole story. Combined with these biological shifts are environmental and lifestyle factors that also can interfere with teens’ sleep:
Early morning school schedules. The typical early-morning start to the school day functions in direct opposition to the circadian changes teens undergo. There have been efforts among scientists and policy makers to adjust school schedules to shift school start times to later in the morning, to bring them at least somewhat more in sync with adolescent sleep patterns. But for now, most teens (and parents) cope with school days that start at or before 8 a.m., making it difficult for many to get the recommended 9 hours of sleep a night.
Academic and extracurricular workload. With adolescence comes the academic rigor of high school, the looming prospect of college for many students. Teenagers often face academic pressure and heavy homework loads during these years. Many teens keep a rigorous schedule of sports and other extracurricular activities on top of school, which often means homework doesn’t get started until evening. Research shows that skimping on sleep in favor of studying doesn’t pay off—but it’s a common practice nonetheless.
Technology—and the light that comes with it. Teens today are digitally connected in ways that most of us could never have imagined when we were growing up. Smart phones, tablets, laptops—teenagers are constantly engaged with personal technology and social media. These new technologies pose real hazards for sleep for teens. The teen-sleep technology problem is twofold: the mental stimulation of many of these activities can be a deterrent to sleep, and the light emitted from these devices can disrupt teens’ already fluctuating circadian rhythms, making it even more difficult for them to wind down in the evening.
Given this constellation of challenges, it’s little surprise that most adolescents aren’t sleeping enough. This large-scale study conducted by the CDC found that nearly 70% of teenagers in the U.S. aren’t getting sufficient nightly sleep during the week.
The consequences of sleep deprivation in adolescents are serious and wide ranging: low sleep in teens is associated with academic difficulties, behavioral problems, and a downright scary list of risky behaviors that reads like any parent’s nightmare. Insufficient sleep in teenagers also puts them at elevated risk for very adult health problems including obesity and cardiovascular disease.
So, we know why teens sleep differently, and what risks and hazards exist for them if they don’t get enough sleep. How do we get them the sleep they need?
Set a schedule for the week. Good sleep habits don’t develop by accident. Having a set routine for sleep can help teens create strong sleep habits. A good sleep routine includes a regular bedtime, that’s based on a realistic wake time. If your teen needs to be up at 7 a.m. during the week, then a 10 p.m. bedtime will allow them the roughly 9 hours they need per night.
Be flexible, especially on the weekends. Letting your teen sleep in on the weekends is fine, and a good way for them to relax and get some extra rest. Just don’t overdo: sleeping two hours beyond their weekday bedtime is okay, but sleeping until noon or later can wreak havoc with their body clock and actually make them feel more tired.
Set limits on technology. We all know how easily our electronic and digital devices can infiltrate every aspect of our lives. One place that ought to remain free of digital technology? The bedroom. This goes for all of us, but especially for teens, who are less able to self-regulate their tech habits. Set an electronic curfew for your teenager, one that allows them to wind down for an hour or so before bedtime.
Get outside and get moving. Exposure to sunlight—especially in the morning—will help strengthen teens’ circadian rhythms, helping them to feel less tired early in the day and more ready for bed at night. Exercise, too, will help to keep their body clocks in line with their bedtimes and wake times.
Talk to your teenager. When you’re setting bedtime schedules and limits, talk to your teens about why these things are important. The more they understand about their bodies’ changing needs for sleep, the more they can actively participate in learning to manage their own sleep habits.
Michael J. Breus, PhD
The Sleep Doctor™