Young and restless: Why teenagers aren’t getting enough sleep
Published on February 5

“On any given day, I would bet that 20 to 25 percent of my students haven’t had more than five hours of sleep,” said David Smith, a history teacher at a high school where the day begins with a “zero period” at 7 a.m.

He said the academic demands on his students are tremendous and that schedules are packed. Some of his students take four or five Advanced Placement classes a semester. Some work after-school jobs. And many play sports with nightly practices. “I think we’re asking too much of the students,” he said. “They’re burning the candles at both ends, and they’re suffering for it. It’s a serious health issue.”



Smith’s students aren’t the only ones burning the proverbial candle at both ends. Study after study shows the majority of teens in the United States aren’t getting the 8.5 to 9.5 hours of nightly sleep doctors say they need. Last year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that 68.8 percent of the more than 50,000 high-school students they surveyed slept an “insufficient” amount, less than seven hours, on weeknights.

And the consequences of “insufficient sleep” are more than dark circles and frequent yawns during math class. Years of research shows that students who don’t get enough sleep jeopardize their physical and mental health and don’t perform as well as they otherwise could in school. Chronic sleep deficits in adolescents can also impair judgment, increase the risk of car accidents and injury in sports and lead to higher rates of drug and alcohol use.

“[Sleep deprivation in adolescents] is a very important public health issue that parents must be aware of,” said Dr. Gustavo Nino Barrera, director of Sleep Medicine at Children’s National Health System in D.C.



What can parents do to help their children? The first step may simply be to understand that there are hardwired changes in adolescents that affect their sleep patterns. When puberty begins, circadian rhythms change and sleep phases shift. “Right around the time of puberty, there is a shift in the biological clock. While younger, elementary-school kids can easily go to bed at 8:30, it’s very hard for an older teen to fall asleep before 10:30 or 11 p.m.,” said Dr. Daniel Lewin, associate director of Sleep Medicine at Children’s National Health System.

To help address the roughly two-hour adolescent sleep shift, Dr. Lewin and his colleagues are staunch advocates for delayed middle- and high-school start times. Four years ago, a team from Children’s National helped the Fairfax County, Va. school district develop its plan to push back the start time of its school day, and the team said the change was widely viewed as a success. Nationwide, the American Academy of Pediatrics now recommends that all middle and high schools delay their start times until at least 8:30 a.m., and a recent study by the Rand Corporation found that later start times not only are good for the students themselves, but applied universally could add at least $9 billion a year to the U.S. economy.

But, of course, changing a school’s start time isn’t something that most parents can control. So, what can be done at home?



Ban screens in the bedroom.

Kimberly Kelly is an assistant principal who believes that smartphones are one of the main culprits when it comes to disrupting student sleep. “I know kids who sleep with a phone under their pillows so if they get a message it vibrates and wakes them up so that they don’t miss anything in the group chat,” said Kelly.

The doctors at Children’s National agree that digital devices wreak havoc on sleep. “The bedroom needs to be completely free of these devices,” said Dr. Nino. “We know that just the presence of cell phones or tablets can decrease sleep onset time and the duration of sleep. And blue light suppresses melatonin which induces sleep.”


Know that you can’t “catch up” on sleep.

For parents wondering if teens can “catch up” by sleeping late on the weekends, the answer is no. Children, adolescents and adults should wake up at relatively the same time during the week as they do on Saturdays and Sundays; they should be out of bed by 10 a.m., said experts from Children’s National. Sleeping in for hours on days off from school is comparable to living in a different time zone on the weekends and suffering the effects of jet lag during the first days of the school week. “The idea that it’s OK to go to bed at midnight or one in the morning on a weekend night and then sleep in until noon is actually a major problem,” said Dr. Lewin. “You can’t have your teenager living on Pacific Standard Time on weekends and then travel back to the East Coast every Monday morning.”



Avoid afternoon caffeine.

“There is a whole Starbucks culture—a social culture that’s been built up around caffeine consumption in the last 20 years, and it’s a problem,” said Dr. Lewin. While he would like to see teens avoid caffeinated drinks altogether, if they should choose to consume them he advises a cutoff around noon. And what about “energy” drinks? Dr. Lewin is concerned about their safety: “Caffeine should not be used as performance enhancer. You are basically taking a drug to correct for inadequate sleep health behavior and that’s just dangerous.”


Try short naps.

There are some simple things to try. Dr. Nino and his colleagues recommend a short nap—between 10 to 20 minutes—taken in the late afternoon, at least a few hours before bedtime. “As long as the nap isn’t more than 20 minutes and doesn’t interfere with the initiation of sleep at night, we know that many adolescents and adults have found this to be helpful,” he said.



Don’t hit the snooze button.

Rapid Eye Movement (REM) is the last phase in a sleep cycle and is essential to emotional regulation, learning and forming long-term memories. Because teenagers’ sleep cycles occur later in the morning than adults’, they achieve their final and longest REM sleep period around the time most need to wake up for school (as opposed to adults who hit REM sleep in what is typically just after the middle of the night). Dr. Lewin strongly recommends that parents help their teens preserve as much early-morning, restorative sleep as possible. “Sleeping in as late as possible on school mornings is very important,” he said. “Have your teen get as prepared as possible for school the night before. They should lay out clothes and school materials before going to bed. Even if it gives them an extra 10 minutes, it makes a difference.”

See a doctor if necessary.

If none of these preventative measures seem to help a middle or high schooler improve a poor sleep schedule, parents should talk to a child’s primary care provider. There are some extremely common disorders, like sleep apnea, restless leg syndrome and insomnia that can interfere with sleep but are, in most cases, “highly treatable,” said Dr. Nino.

For more advice on keeping kids happy and healthy, visit the Rise & Shine site from Children’s National.

Sources: American Academy of Pediatrics, Center for Disease Control and Prevention, Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine