Teens and Sleep

Sleep is crucially important during the teenage years. Adolescence is a time of physical, mental, and social development, and getting enough sleep helps promote all of these types of growth. 

Teens who get adequate sleep are more likely to be happy, healthy, and successful. But teens’ lives are full of things that keep them from sleeping enough, such as packed schedules, early school times, and social obligations. Plus, teenagers have a natural tendency to not feel sleepy until late in the evening. 

Fortunately, teens and their families can take steps to increase the quantity and improve the quality of their sleep. Better sleep can help teenagers enjoy better health, higher grades, improved moods, and greater well-being overall.

How Many Hours Of Sleep Do Teens Need?

The National Sleep Foundation recommends that teenagers between the ages of 13 and 18 get 8 to 10 hours of sleep each night. For those over 18, the recommendation shifts downward, to between seven and nine hours. 

However, around 4 out of 5 high school students in the U.S. get fewer than eight hours of sleep a night. The widespread sleep deprivation among teenagers can be especially damaging as their health and development depend on sleep. 

Why Do Teens Need More Sleep?

Teens’ bodies grow a great deal in a short number of years, and sufficient sleep is essential for this growth. During sleep, the body produces greater amounts of growth and sex hormones. Sleep also allows the body to repair tissue damage and develop muscle mass.

The teenage brain also depends on sleep. Although teens outwardly resemble adults in many ways, their brains have not yet fully developed. 

Studies show that teens who get more sleep have more substantial brain development than teens who have too little or poor-quality sleep. Additionally, sleep promotes the development of connections in the brain that are necessary for learning.

The Effects of Poor Sleep on Teens

Getting enough sleep is vital to a teenager’s quality of life. Poor sleep can negatively affect a teen’s health, mood, academic performance, athletic ability, and social life. 

School Performance

Academic performance is enhanced by good sleep quantity and quality. But students who do not get a good night’s sleep have more trouble with memory, learning, and making decisions.

Consequently, not getting sufficient sleep can interfere with a teen’s ability to perform in class. Inadequate sleep can also make it harder to pay attention in school and cause behavior problems that interfere with the ability to learn. It can even result in a teen falling asleep during a lecture or test.

Students who have an irregular sleep schedule, take a long time to fall asleep, or who wake up repeatedly during the night tend to get worse grades than those that follow a regular schedule and sleep through the night. 

Mood

Teens experience significant emotional changes as they mature from children into adults. Getting adequate sleep helps teens manage their emotions. But sleep deprivation can make them irritable and exaggerate the effects of stress. 

Teenagers are able to cope better with stressful events after having a good night’s sleep the night before. Teens who have an adequate amount of sleep are better at problem-solving, and they are more likely to seek support when confronted with stressful situations. 

Poor sleep can also have a negative impact on teens’ mental health. Without enough sleep, teens are more likely to report feeling unhappy and have a negative outlook on their lives and futures. 

Teenagers who don’t sleep enough are more prone to developing mental health problems such as depression and anxiety. In turn, depression and anxiety can lead to further sleep problems like insomnia, nightmares, and difficulty getting up in the morning. But getting more sleep has been shown to decrease teens’ symptoms of depression and generally improve their moods. 

Behavior

Inadequate sleep in teens can lead to behavior problems. Teens lacking sufficient sleep are more likely to engage in risky behaviors without considering the negative consequences of their actions. 

Dangerous behaviors associated with poor sleep during adolescence include substance abuse, vaping, and driving under the influence. Teens with sleep problems are also more likely to be defiant and aggressive, both at home and in school. 

Teens who don’t get enough sleep may face social consequences as well. This is because sleep loss can make people irritable, depressed, and angry. Getting enough sleep, on the other hand, makes it easier to understand how other people feel, to control emotions, and to figure out how to act in challenging social situations. 

Athletics

Sleep deprivation can have serious consequences for teen athletes. Research has shown that teen athletes who get insufficient sleep are nearly twice as likely to be injured as peers who get enough sleep.

Inadequate sleep also affects athletic performance by decreasing a person’s endurance and slowing their reaction times. The harmful impact sleep deprivation has on concentration and decision-making may negatively impact sports performance as well.

Time spent in deep sleep helps the body recover from training by increasing muscle mass and helping the body repair itself. Student athletes tend to spend more time in deep sleep than their nonathletic peers. 

Driving

Teens who don’t get enough sleep are especially at risk for motor vehicle accidents. People who are sleep-deprived are more likely to be involved in a motor vehicle accident, and accidents related to drowsy driving are more likely to be serious. 

Sleep-deprived teens are also more likely to engage in high-risk behaviors, many of which involve driving. These include texting while driving, not using a seatbelt, drinking and driving, and getting in a car with a driver who has been drinking. 

Body Weight

There are proven links between insufficient sleep or irregular sleep schedules and obesity in children and adolescents. In fact, early bedtimes for children can cut the risk of developing obesity in their teen years by more than half, compared to their peers with later bedtimes. 

Scientists don’t know exactly why adolescents who sleep less are more susceptible to weight gain. But they suspect it may be due to changes in levels of hormones that regulate appetite, reduced levels of exercise, or eating more because of being awake longer. 

Why Is It Hard for Teens to Get Enough Sleep?

There are several reasons why it may be difficult for teens to get as much sleep as they need. Some of these reasons are external, like school schedules, and some are internal, like changes in their circadian rhythms. 

Later Bedtimes

People often become night owls during their teen years, with a preference for going to bed later and sleeping later in the morning. Several changes related to puberty and adolescence help explain this shift in bedtime.

In the early teen years, the internal body clock that controls daily cycles called circadian rhythms shifts to a later schedule. Since circadian rhythms include the sleep-wake cycle, teens may start to feel sleepy up to two hours later than they did just a few years earlier. This is due in part to the brain releasing the sleep hormone melatonin later at night during adolescence.

Teens also experience the “sleep drive” differently than children do. The sleep drive is the pressure to fall asleep that builds up during the waking hours of the day. In adolescence, sleep drive begins to build up more slowly, making it easier for teens to delay sleep and stay up later. 

Some adolescents have changes in their circadian rhythms that are dramatic enough to be considered delayed sleep phase syndrome. Night owl tendencies might be classified as delayed sleep phase syndrome when sleep delay is so extreme that it causes problems waking in the morning and getting to sleep at a reasonable hour. 

If left untreated, delayed sleep phase syndrome may persist into adulthood. But, thankfully, many people outgrow it. 

School Schedules

Most school schedules are out of alignment with teens’ natural sleep rhythms. Teens get sleepy later in the evening, yet class schedules often require them to get up at 6 or 7 a.m. This leaves them insufficient time to get the recommended 8 to 10 hours of sleep. 

To address this problem, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that middle and high schools start no earlier than 8:30 a.m. Starting school later in the morning allows students to get more sleep on weeknights, decreases fatigue, and may improve their performance and moods. 

In addition to having early school schedules, many teens have days filled with homework, athletic training, social plans, and jobs. Jam-packed schedules not only leave less time for sleep, but also cause stress that makes it hard to unwind in the hours before bedtime. 

Electronic Devices

Both screen time and social media use can interfere with sleep. Using electronic devices is linked to later bedtimes and less total sleep time in teenagers. 

Watching TV, computer or mobile phone use, and video gaming are all associated with worse sleep. In the evening, the blue light emitted by electronic devices can delay sleep by stopping the brain from making melatonin, a sleep-promoting hormone. Alerts and notifications that go off at night can also interrupt the sleep of a teen. 

Tips to Help Teens Get Better Sleep

Following several good sleep hygiene practices can help teens get an adequate amount of sleep and lead their best lives. 

  • Promote a regular schedule: Your teen may rebel against a set bedtime, but having a regular sleep schedule has many benefits. Establish their bedtime based on how much sleep they need and when they need to wake up. 
  • Limit nighttime use of phones: Restricting phone use 30 minutes before bedtime may help teens get to sleep faster, sleep longer, improve their sleep quality, and put them in a better mood the next day. 
  • Allow for time to wind down before bed: Encourage relaxing activities for the hour or two before bedtime. These could include reading, bathing, or listening to music
  • Create a quiet, dark sleep environment: Provide your teen with a dark, quiet, cool place to sleep with a comfortable mattress and pillow.

Frequently Asked Questions

The American Academy of Pediatrics has called for school districts to establish later start times for middle and high schools in order to improve sleep for teens. Starting school later may help teens’ schedules align with their body clocks, as well as possibly improving grades and standardized test scores

Some schools that have later start times have seen many benefits for their teen students. Not only do their students get more sleep, they report feeling less sleepy during the day. In some of these schools, attendance rates have improved and enrollment has increased.

People vary in how much sleep they need, and many teens need as much as 10 hours of sleep for optimal physical and mental functioning. 

If your teen sleeps more than 10 hours at a stretch, you might want to consider why. Sometimes when teens are sleep-deprived during the week, they attempt to compensate on the weekends by sleeping for extended periods. This might be a counterproductive strategy if it makes their body clocks even more out of sync with their weekday schedule. 

In other cases, teens may sleep more than 10 hours because they are sick or have taken medications that cause excessive sleepiness. In rare cases, long sleep may be due to a sleep disorder. Speak with your teen’s pediatrician if you see a consistent pattern of sleeping more than 10 hours. 

Teens may be able to catch up on sleep to a certain extent, but probably not entirely. Some research has found that teens who compensate for lost sleep on the weekends do better in school than their peers who do not sleep more on the weekend. 

However, extra sleep on the weekend can interfere with a teen’s sleep-wake cycle and reinforce night owl tendencies. To avoid this, experts recommend that weekend sleep should be no more than 30 minutes longer than weekday sleep. 

Ideally, having a consistent sleep schedule that allows for enough sleep every night is best. Students who stick to a regular sleep schedule tend to be healthier, happier, and do better at school. 

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