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Teen Sleep: Why It Matters and How We Can Help

Sleep is critical for teens' health: Moving school start times can help.

Key points

  • Most teens are not getting the sleep they need (at least 8 hours of sleep per night) for their health.
  • Moving school start times later (8:30 AM or later) can help teens get the sleep they need.
  • Helping teens get the sleep they need can improve academic outcomes, physical health, and mental health.

This post was co-authored by Jessica Leigh Hamilton, Ph.D. and Ryan Shintani.

Do you get the sleep you need? Most people, especially teens, laugh at the idea of getting 8 hours of sleep per night, which is the minimum recommended amount of sleep for adolescents aged 13-18 years. In fact, over 75% of U.S. high school students do not get the sleep they need. So, why does it matter that teens are sleep deprived? What's the big deal about getting enough sleep?

1. Sleep is critical for physical health, especially during a period when teens brains are still developing. Sleep helps our bodies and immune system become stronger. It helps us perform physically (think athletics!), repair muscles and grow, fight obesity, and prevent long-term negative health outcomes like diabetes and heart disease. In fact, getting better sleep leads to a longer life (literally).

2. Sleep is linked to academic performance, including decision-making, problem-solving, and attention, all of which impact teens’ ability to learn. If teens are too sleepy to pay attention in class, they won't retain important notes covered by the teacher. During sleep, our brain also consolidates memories. In other words, without adequate sleep, teens may not be able to learn new things or convert them into lasting memories!

3. Sleep is linked to most mental health problems, including anxiety, depression, and suicidal thoughts and behaviors. While sleep disturbance is a symptom of mental health problems, poor sleep also predicts (or precedes) these problems. This means that insufficient sleep can lead to anxiety, depression, and even suicidal thinking over time. Many people are surprised by this, but it makes sense when you think about how we feel when sleep deprived (e.g., Irritable? Angry? More reactive to stress? More impulsive? Harder to make decisions?). Among high-risk youth (those already at risk for suicide), our study found that when teens got shorter or poorer quality sleep than usual, they were more likely to have suicidal thinking the next day—in part because poor sleep made interactions with other people feel worse and reduced the positive effects of good interactions with other people. In short, poor sleep made the good things feel less good and the bad things feel worse. And that’s not what teens need, particularly when their brains are already more sensitive to emotional and social experiences.

Now, the big question is this: what is causing this problem of short sleep among teens? While there are many factors at play, early school start times are one of the biggest culprits. Teens’ biological rhythms naturally shift later with the onset of puberty, which means that teens cannot just “go to sleep'' earlier because school start times move earlier as they transition to high school. Most high schools begin around 7-7:30 AM, necessitating students to rise around 5:30-6:30 AM.

So, what can we do to improve teen sleep? There are steps to improve sleep for individual teens: have a regular sleep-wake routine, avoid long naps later in the day, and avoid phones in the 30 minutes before sleep. We also can move school start times later. This one fundamental shift of moving school start times to 8:30 AM has already been found to improve teen sleep (note: teens don’t just go to bed later, they get more sleep!), improve academic performance, and better mental health outcomes.

With one systemic change, the idea of getting at least 8 hours of sleep may not be so laughable for teens—and as a society, we can signal to teens that we do care about their sleep and their health and well-being. So what can you do? Get involved! Advocate for later school start times in your school and community, which is something you can do as a parent, educator, community member, and even as a teen!

Ryan Shintani is a Ridgewood High School sophomore in New Jersey who is passionate about teen sleep and mental health. He also is a member of The Hamilton Lab RISE Team, our youth advisory board.


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