Digital diversions leave teens, parents sleep-deprived

By Donna St. George
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 24, 2010; A01

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.

"I get sidetracked by other things," says Teddy, a rising senior who says he thinks about getting to bed around 10 p.m. But then he might start gaming. Or chatting with friends on Facebook.

Time gets away.

Experts say the math of teen sleep is improbable -- with super-early starts to school days, with so many activities packed into teen lives, with the circadian rhythms of adolescents leaving many unable to get to sleep before 11 or midnight.

Add to that: texting and Facebooking and gaming.

"Our teens have an overwhelming need for sleep and an insurmountable series of obstacles they have to navigate in order to find a quiet place and time to get to sleep," says Helene Emsellem, author of "Snooze . . . Or Lose!" and director of the Center for Sleep & Wake Disorders in Chevy Chase, where the appointment schedule is especially busy this time of year.

She and other experts see lack of sleep as a serious problem, with studies showing links to lower school performance, reduced cognitive abilities and mood problems, including depression.

But there is a wide range in how sleep issues play out in family life.

Colleen Sheehy Orme, a mother of three in Great Falls, has learned that sometimes even the appearance of sleep can be deceiving.

During the school year, her 16-year-old son often said goodnight at 10 p.m. and headed to his bedroom. "Once they were in their rooms, I thought my job was over," she says.

One night, as Orme nudged her younger sons, 10 and 14, toward bed, she cited their older brother's good example. "Well, at least your brother is going to bed," she told them.

His siblings had a good laugh.

"He's in bed, but he's texting," one said.

Now Orme knows: Going to bed is not the same as going to sleep. New rules have been set: No cellphones or laptops in bed.

A Pew Research Center study released in April showed that more than four of five adolescents say they have slept with their cellphones in or near their bed. Some wake every time their phones buzz with a new text message. Some young couples text through the night.

To ward against this, some parents ban the devices after a certain hour -- insisting cellphones get handed over at 9 p.m., for example, or that they are placed on a parent's dresser before bed.

Snoozy at school

But at school, sleepy faces are a fact of life.

"It's not just the tired thing, but they are zoning out in class," says James G. Fernandez, principal of Albert Einstein High School in Kensington. "It's a big problem. And if you get a substitute in the classroom, they all go to sleep; it's looky here, a 40-minute nap."

Some students have so much trouble getting up in the mornings that assistant principals have been known to place a few wake-up calls -- and it's not all because of texting or homework, Fernandez says. Some of his students work jobs that leave them tired -- or have parents who work multiple jobs and are not there to rouse their sleepy high-schoolers every morning.

In Takoma Park, Phyllis Rattey, 46, looks at the sleep question as one of those issues that allow adolescents the opportunity to learn how to make good choices. "I just feel if you're going to police them, they're going to rely on that," rather than become independent, she says.

Another reality: If the clock says 9:30 p.m. on a weekday, chances are Rattey's head has already hit the pillow. "It's sad when your kids can outlast you," she says.

The sleep mandate can get a little less clear when teenagers are staying up to do their homework.

Should a parent shoo them to bed?

In Clarksburg, Lisa Winstel, 47, says her daughter stays up to read, so in a sense she shouldn't complain. But lately the 13-year-old is still turning the pages of her novels at 1 a.m. When Winstel gets up to insist the lights must go out, the noise sets off a chain reaction.

Her 6-year-old son wakes up. Her dog wants go outside. And by the time Winstel is back under the covers, her night's sleep of seven hours or less is shorter still.

Who said only parents of newborns are bleary-eyed?

"I think parents are, by and large, sleep-deprived," she says.

For all of the effort, her daughter often stays up anyway unless her mom confiscates the book.

Patrolling the house at night can take many forms.

Sharon Rainey, 47, mom of a rising senior at Langley High School, says sleep became an issue when her son was in about eighth grade and the need for social connection took hold.

"We definitely had to do something, or he would've been up until 3 a.m. talking or IMing to his friends," she says. "I think they get energized by communicating with each other, and I think they lose track of time, and they just sort of forget."

Thus did the family computer get located in the kitchen.

A few times, she heard the sounds of the stairs creaking, as he tried to get online unnoticed. But over time, she says, he became more willing to unplug. Still, Rainey says that sometimes she gets up in the night and passes his bedroom to see whether the lights are on.

At the sound of her approach, his room goes dark.

"It's this kind of silent game we play," she says. "I know he's staying up too late sometimes, and he knows, too."

© 2010 The Washington Post Company