Solving Teen Sleep Deprivation with Science

13 September 2016
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The stereotypical image of a teenager collapsing into bed in the early hours of the morning, followed by dragging himself downstairs for breakfast at noon, is a common sight in the media and meant to be funny, but it downplays the frightening reality of teen sleep deprivation.

The lack of sleep is so prevalent and so serious among today’s teens that a 2014 report from the American Academy of Paediatrics called it a “health epidemic.” Teenagers around the world are getting less sleep than ever, and it is beginning to affect school performance, behaviour, mood and personal health. As these problems continue to mount, the need for a solution to sleep deprivation in teens is becoming more urgent.

Dwindling Sleep Time

A series of surveys conducted between 1991 and 2012 showed that teens were leaving home each day without enough sleep and getting even less of it as time went on. Over the course of the decade, survey results showed a six percent drop in teen respondents saying they got “enough” sleep every night. Over half of teens aged from 15 to 19 reported sleeping for seven hours or less on most nights.

Bigger demands and higher pressure are partly to blame for the sleep deficit. Most of today’s teens are trying to juggle school, extra academic activities, sports and part-time jobs while still hoping to fit in time with friends. With all these activities on their calendars, it’s almost impossible to maintain a regular sleep schedule. However, regular sleep is exactly what teens need to stay healthy and focused.

The Science of Teen Sleep

Research shows that teens need just as much sleep as younger children, if not more. The recommended amount of sleep during teen years is nine to ten hours per night, a number rarely reached except on weekends when many teens sleep in to “catch up” on the sleep they have lost during the week.

Teens only appear to need less sleep because, during puberty, something shifts in their bodies and pushes their natural “bedtime” later into the night. Although this mechanism isn’t fully understood, it appears to have something to do with the release of melatonin, a hormone responsible for controlling sleep cycles. Melatonin naturally rises in the evening, but this rise may not trigger tiredness in teens until as late as 11 o’clock.

To get the proper amount of sleep to compensate for later melatonin release, teens would have to sleep until eight or nine in the morning. However, many are forced to get up much earlier in order to make it to school on time.

Sleep and Suffering School Performance

Take the U.S. as an example. Around 43 percent of public high schools start classes before eight, meaning that teens must sacrifice beneficial morning sleep most days of the week. A poll conducted by the National Sleep Foundation showed that over 25 percent of teenagers tend to fall asleep in class, and 87 percent of high school students fall short of the recommended nightly amount of sleep. A lack of sleep makes it more difficult to concentrate, leading to poor school performance, lower grades and difficulties in learning and retaining new information.

Some schools are beginning to realise the gravity of teen sleep deprivation. In the late 1990s, the high school in Edina, Minnesota, shifted its start time to a little over an hour later in the morning. The University of Michigan researched the effects and found teens reported feeling better, less sleepy and more driven, and both failure rates and absenteeism dropped. As other schools followed suit, further studies showed similar results even with start times pushed down by as little as half an hour.

Dangerous Deprivation: Sleep and Teens in Society

The same National Sleep Foundation poll also showed the problems with early school start times points towards an even more serious trend of drowsy driving among teens. More than 50 percent of teens polled said that they had driven when feeling drowsy at some point during the last year, and 15 percent had driven in a sleep-deprived state within the last week.

A study done in North Carolina highlights how serious this situation can be. Fifty-five percent of accidents which were caused by drivers falling asleep behind the wheel happened to people under the age of 25. The more pronounced sleep deprivation in teens becomes, the more likely they are to have trouble staying awake while driving.

Running on a sleep deficit can also affect mood, as illustrated in a study showing a 58 percent increase in suicide attempts among teens for every hour of sleep lost per night. Sleep deprivation and sleep problems often go hand in hand with substance abuse, heavy drinking and impaired judgement, which might even prompt risky sexual behaviour.

When teens don’t have enough time to rest and recharge, they become more hyperactive, impulsive and disobedient. They’re more likely to suffer from depression and turn to alcohol or prescription drug abuse in an attempt to feel more stable.

Better Sleep Hygiene for a Brighter Future

Promoting better sleep for teens should start at home with smarter sleeping habits:

  • Going to bed at the same time every night, including weekends
  • Turning off Smartphones and other devices before going to sleep
  • Limiting stressful or violent movies and video games at bedtime
  • Diversifying study time to avoid “all-nighters”
  • Creating a calm, uncluttered bedroom environment
  • Avoiding caffeine consumption late in the day
  • Getting exposure to bright, preferably natural, light upon waking

Parents need to step up to the plate and enforce bedtime rules as much as possible to help teens establish and maintain healthy schedules.

If schools, parents and health organisations work together to give teens the time they need to get a healthy amount of sleep, it’s possible to solve the problem of teen sleep deprivation across the globe.

Moving the start of the school day to later in the morning and unburdening kids from excessively heavy homework loads is just the beginning. Teens need to be offered the leeway to relax and be educated on how to develop healthy sleeping habits.

Better sleep can lead to healthier, happier, more productive teens and a safer society for everyone.

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Categories:   Health

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