Digital diversions leave teens, parents sleep-deprived

Hundreds of thousands of students return to classrooms across the D.C. area.

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By Donna St. George
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 24, 2010

There are nights when Jane Hopkins feels like a sleep cop.

She will climb out of her bed in the wee hours to see whether her teenage sons are really asleep. If she spies them still awake, playing on the computer or the PlayStation3 in the basement of their College Park home, she will insist: It's time for bed. It was time hours ago.

"If you find the perfect child who goes to bed early, will you let me know?" she asks.

Pushing teens to get enough rest is an ever-more difficult quest as another school year begins and triggers another round of family debates about cellphones and game consoles, iPods and laptops. What teen wants to drift off when another text is arriving, when X-Box friends are still online, when Facebook is 24/7?

The abundance of digital diversions has only amped up the usual tug-of-war between generations about when the lights go out, and worried parents can lose sleep just trying to keep up. "I'm tired," Hopkins, 47, says one recent day, having risen to find her sons awake at 1 a.m.

Experts say 80 percent of adolescents don't get their recommended sleep, about nine hours, and the effects are nothing to yawn about.

But getting teenagers into bed -- despite piles of homework and the lure of socializing through cellphones and cyberspace -- can be tough, and Judith Owens, a sleep researcher at Brown University's Alpert Medical School, says many parents "don't know what time their kids go to bed, because they are not staying up for it."

Owens quotes a poll by the National Sleep Foundation, which shows 90 percent of parents think their teens gets enough sleep at least several nights a week, revealing what researchers see as a striking "awareness gap." More sleep cops would be better, she argues -- or at least rules that get teens in bed by, say, 10 or 11 p.m.

"There's definitely a disconnect," she said.

Best intentions

In the Hopkins family, with sons ages 14 and 17, summers mean more freedom about when to unplug. During the school year, it's a rush to get out of the house by 7 a.m. to get to DeMatha Catholic High School in Hyattsville on time.

"I think they need to be in bed by 11," Hopkins says.

Still, she usually falls asleep before they do, and sometimes their best intentions about heading to bed go awry.


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