If some teens you know tend to keep hitting the snooze button, note that they have science on their side. Many U.S. adolescents are chronically sleep-deprived. The curmudgeons who tend to complain about teen entitlement and dismissively speak of “teenage angst” would do well to instead recognize with empathy what some researchers are calling an epidemic. The demands of school, hormonal changes, peer pressure, an uncertain identity, as well as the ubiquity of interactive and behaviorally addictive technology are all to blame.
Chronic sleep loss in adolescents has steadily become the norm: 69% of high schoolers report sleeping less than the recommended amount of hours and only 7.6% students report getting optimal sleep. The prevalence of insufficient sleep is highest among female and black students, and students in the last two years of high school.
A 2014 National Sleep Foundation poll found that 87% of U.S. high school students and 59% of sixth through eight graders in the got less than 8.5 through 9.5 hours of sleep on school nights.
‘Chronic sleep loss in children and adolescents is one of the most common—and easily fixable—public health issues in the U.S. today.’
“Chronic sleep loss in children and adolescents is one of the most common—and easily fixable—public health issues in the U.S. today,” says pediatrician Judith Owens, coauthor of the policy article “School Start Times for Adolescents,” published in a 2014 issue of Pediatrics journal.
This article covers the importance of sleep in a teenager’s life, the challenges that lead to lack of sleep in the lives of adolescents, the latest research on the unique sleep problems and their consequences for this demographic, tips on getting better rest, and abundant resources for both sleepy teenagers and those who care for them.
Healthy Sleep Is Key to Becoming an Adult
Sleep is a necessary aid in helping teenagers morph into adults. This is not an understatement—restful slumber is a requirement for biological growth, rejuvenation, cognitive development, the making of memories, repair from injuries and sicknesses, and the prevention of mental and bodily illnesses.
According to a policy statement by The American Academy of Pediatrics, tired teens are a public health epidemic. All the typical teenage growing pangs become exacerbated by insufficient sleep. As a result, many middle and high school students are at risk for mood impairments, affect regulation, attention problems, difficulty with memorization, behavior control issues, weight gain, executive function difficulties, and diminished quality of life.
Teenage years are naturally a time of all kinds of experimentation. The five common risky behaviors examined by a survey published in 2016 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are the use of bicycle helmets (86.1% of all students surveyed did not use them; texting while driving (30.3% did it); riding in a car with someone who had been drinking (26% confessed to this); driving after drinking (8.9% did that); and not using seatbelts frequently (8.7% teens fell in this category). All these risky behaviors were more frequent among students who slept seven hours or fewer. That’s 69% of high school students.
“Although short and long sleep might simply be associated with other adolescent risk behaviors, insufficient sleep might cause persons to take more risks and disregard the possibility of negative consequences,” the researchers noted. “However, depression might contribute to both sleep problems and participation in risk behaviors.”
How Much Sleep Do Teens Need And Why?
Teenagers need more sleep than adults and more than they got as tweens. An average adult needs between 7 and 9 hours of sleep. Doctors recommend that teens get between 8 and 10 hours of sleep, with some well-respected researchers insisting that teens need as much sleep as they got when they were children. Brown’s University researcher Dr. Mary Carskadon puts the optimum at 9 hours and 15 minutes. Because of a mechanism called “phase-delay,” teens tend to go to sleep two hours later than tweens. Conventional high school schedules being what they are, many teens wake up exhausted, with their restful phase of sleep, the REM, interrupted.
‘When teens wake up earlier, it cuts off their dreams. We’re not giving them a chance to dream.’
“When teens wake up earlier, it cuts off their dreams,” says Dr. Rafael Pelayo, a clinical profession of psychiatry and behavioral sciences. “We’re not giving them a chance to dream.”
“High school is the real danger spot in terms of sleep deprivation,” said Dr. William Dement, founder of the Stanford Sleep Disorders Clinic. “ It’s a huge problem. What it means is that nobody performs at the level they could perform.”
Because sleep loss puts teenagers at risk for injury (from things like car accidents), lower academic performance, depression, and obesity, The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that high schools and middle schools start classes later than usual. “[T]he evidence strongly implicates earlier school start times (i.e., before 8:30 am) as a key modifiable contributor to insufficient sleep, as well as circadian rhythm disruption,” among teens, the AAP found.
Sleep-Stealing Issues that Teenagers Face
Given the unique challenges of puberty that teens go through, they are vulnerable to a number of obstacles that tend to undermine sleep.
Depression and Anxiety
Ups and downs are famously a part of being a teenager, and do not necessarily signal a need for medical intervention. But if a teen consistently feels hopeless or does not feel that she or he literally has a reason to get out of bed in the morning, it can mean anxiety and depression, which contribute to insomnia or manifest in chronic oversleeping. Eighty percent of adolescents with a diagnosable anxiety disorder and 60 percent of kids with diagnosable depression are not getting treatment, according to the 2015 Child Mind Institute Children’s Mental Health Report. More than 2 million teens report that depression inhibits their daily function. About 30% of girls and 20% of boys have had an anxiety disorder, according to data from the National Institute of Mental Health.
Anxiety is a vicious cycle: it causes sleep loss, which in turn can provoke more anxiety in sufferers. The mechanism behind this phenomenon has to do with what researchers call anticipatory anxiety. Mindfulness meditation and talk therapy can help. Check a list of symptoms of teenage depression and talk to a psychiatrist if you suspect that depression is the key cause of the teen’s struggles with sleep.
Hormonal and emotional upheavals
The hormones have their way with teens. Their bodies morph—often in ways they see as too slow and painfully awkward—into adult ones. Adrenal stress hormones, sex hormones, and growth hormone, plus a brain that, in formation through the early 20s, has difficulty with impulse control and putting things in context can all lead to regrettable choices. “The hormonally regulated 24-hour clocks change their settings during adolescence, keeping high school and college students awake far into the night and making it difficult to rise for morning classes,” according to Harvard researchers.
Alas! Teens really sometimes just can’t win. In one of many vicious cycles of a teenager’s life, sleep deprivation has been shown to lead to poor self-control, even to the point of criminal behavior (see next section for more on this connection).
Given their hormonal changes and emotional difficulties, teenagers can have troubles feeling like they belong—and they can overestimate the importance of such troubles, which can lead to stress, anxiety, and staying up worrying about self-esteem. The good news is that, as a result of biology, peer pressure “often comes from within.” The answer, too, can often be found from within, though supportive parents and friends, educators, and doctors, can and should help–especially when bullying is taking place.
‘Consistent with a delay in circadian sleep phase, students performed better later in the day than in the early morning.’
Given that teenagers’ bodies condition them to go to want to rise two hours later, and that they still have to get up at the same school-mandated time, the school schedule itself contributes to sleep deprivation. “Consistent with a delay in circadian sleep phase, students performed better later in the day than in the early morning,” researchers of teen sleep-deprivation have noted. “However, exposure to bright light in the morning did not change the sleep/wake cycle or improve daytime performance during weekdays. Both short-term and long-term strategies that address the epidemic of sleep deprivation among adolescents will be necessary to improve health and maximize school performance.”
Add to this the pressure to get high grades, and you end up with teens who drift into sleep during class periods.
Common Problems that Result from a Teen’s Lack of Sleep
Most contributing factors to a teenage sleep loss turn back on themselves–the less sleep teens get, the worse these issues get. Sleep deprivation is both the result and the cause of many risk factors, such as depression and anxiety.
A chronically sleepy teenager is more likely to suffer from the following difficulties:
- Poor Impulse Control
Poor impulse control means lowered inhibitions regarding risky behavior, such as driving when exhausted. Analyzing a five-year study of sleep duration and injury-related risk behaviors among 50,000 high school students, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention concluded that “[a]lthough insufficient sleep contributes to injury risk directly by slowing reaction time, impairing ability to pay attention, or causing a driver to fall asleep, this study provides evidence that some of the increased risk associated with insufficient sleep might be caused by engaging in injury-related risk behaviors.” A North Carolina state study found that 55% of all “fall-asleep” car crashes were caused by drivers under the age of 25.
- Lower Self-Esteem
Self-esteem declines throughout adolescence and girls are particularly susceptible to excessive worry over their body image. Researchers at University of California Berkeley’s Sleep and Neuroimaging Laboratory found that when deprived of sleep, the brain reverts back to more primitive patterns of activity. What this means is that subjects kept awake were less likely to put emotionally-charged information in context. This makes the maintenance of a healthy self-regard more difficult. Healthy sleep, on the other hand, makes people more socially resilient and adept.
- Depression and anxiety
According to UC Berkeley researchers, lack of sleep plays a role in ramping up brain regions that trigger excessive worry. The Department of Health and Human Services reports that about 3 million teens ages 12 to 17 had had at least one major depressive episode in 2015. Much like in the case of self-esteem, sleep loss aggravates depression and anxiety by rendering tired teens less likely to put emotionally-charged information in context.
- Lower Grades
The pressure around academic performance has some teens staying up beyond healthy bedtime, but it can be self-defeating, as grades suffer as a result of insomnia. In a study of 3120 high school students, those who described themselves as struggling or failing school (with C’s, D’s/F’s) reported that on school nights they get about 25 minutes fewer sleep and go to bed an average of 40 minutes later than A and B students. In addition, students with worse grades reported greater weekend delays of sleep schedule than did those with better grades.
- Greater Propensity to Criminal Behavior
“The harmful implications of sleep deprivation is a largely under-studied area in criminal justice,” says teen sleep researcher Dr. Ryan C. Meldrum whose research showed a link between sleep loss and criminal activity. “Sleep offers us the opportunity for recuperation and restoration, which is especially important for developmental processes in children and adolescents. But even though sleep occupies roughly a third of our time, we are only now beginning to understand its function and the role it plays in antisocial behavior.”
- Tendency to Gain Weight
Sleeping less than six hours on a school night in high school students has also been associated with being overweight, which negatively impacts overall health, teens’ self-esteem, and can lead to worsened peer pressure issues.
- Attention Problems
Since sleep deprivation leads the brain to revert to more primitive activity, attention suffers as a result. A study of eighth graders (mean age 13.7 years) who got a one hour of sleep extension for eight days through delays in the school start time, showed improved attention and performance. Growing evidence suggests that later school start times do increase total sleep duration, attention, and performance.
How to Get Restful Sleep as a Teenager
The good news is that researchers have developed tricks that have been proven to help reestablish a healthier sleep routine.
For a teenager, healthy sleep habits include:
- Giving up screen time two or at least one hour prior to bedtime.
- Using an app (see the Additional Resources section below) that helps convert the wakefulness-promoting blue light in a tablet or a phone to a more soothing light.
- Sleeping in as dark a room as possible.
- Sleeping in a quiet, cool room, using ear plugs if need be.
- Going to sleep and getting up ideally at the same time each day—even on the weekends. Yes, it’s asking a lot, but it works wonders in the long run.
- Sleeping on a comfortable mattress.
- Getting into a peaceful frame of mind before bed. Explore mindfulness techniques to get help with that.
- And using other recommended good sleep hygiene tips.
Sleep Studies Focused on Teens
- The Sleepy Adolescent: Causes and Consequences of Sleepiness Among Teens. The study lays out why teens become so sleepy and how it affects them.
- The Impact of School Daily Schedule on Adolescent Sleep. The study establishes that high school start times contribute to sleep deprivation among adolescents. Researchers conclude that both short-term and long-term strategies that address the epidemic of sleep deprivation among adolescents will be necessary to improve health and maximize school performance. This study, among others, is why The American Academy of Pediatrics urged schools to start later.
- Prevalence of Insufficient, Borderline, and Optimal Hours of Sleep Among High School Students. The 2007 study points out that chronic sleep loss has become the norm among adolescents and gives numbers for groups especially at risk.
- The CDC data on youth risk behavior. Researchers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention analyzed data from National Youth Risk Behavior Surveys of more than 50,000 high school students and found about 69% sleep seven hours or fewer.
- Sleep Duration and Injury-Related Risk Behaviors Among High School Students—United States, 2-007-2013. A related CDC analysis that includes data on teen sleep deprivation.
- Delaying School Starting Time by One Hour: Some Effects on Attention Levels in Adolescents. A study showing that delaying wake-up times by one hour does wonders for attention.
Teen Anxiety and Depression
- Insomnia’s Link to More Acute Teenage Anxiety. An article from Anxiety.org explaining the titular connection.
- Common Sleep Problems. The Teen’s Health page explains why teens have trouble sleeping and how worrying about sleep can itself be an obstacle to getting some zs.
- Teens and Sleep. The poll from the National Sleep Foundation shows that many adolescents exhibit symptoms of a depressive mood and are more likely to have sleep problems.
- Anxiety and Depression Association of America’s page on children and teens. It offers multifarious help for teens and their parents.
- Guide to Anxiety and Sleep. Tuck’s guide gets at the link between anxiety and sleep and covers several anxiety disorders that interfere with sleep and that can be alleviated with better rest. It offers tips on banishing anxious thoughts.
- f.lux (free). Doctor-recommended free app that automatically adjusts the light on your computer screen to coincide with the time of day. F.lux automatically removes the stimulating blue light from an electronic device’s screen at night so that you’re able to sleep better even if you’ve been up late working on a paper.
- Digipill: Sleep, Meditation, and Mindfulness (free, with options for in-app purchases). The app’s guided meditations (pills) include one to beat insomnia and others.
- Relax Melodies: Oriental Meditation (free). This app includes the sounds of nature mixed with soothing traditional Asian music.
- MIT Medical (free). The audio downloads found here can help “overcome insomnia, reduce stress, and improve sleep quality.” They include a basic breathing meditation and sleep-time body scan.
- Understanding Sleep Disorders. An overview from the Cleveland Clinic.
- Sleep Disorders. The Stanford Center for Sleep Sciences and Medicine offers a guide and latest research on chronic obstacles to healthy sleep.
- Sleep Disorders. Page from the National Sleep Foundation includes info on disorders such as excessive daytime sleepiness.
- Sleep Disorders Health Center. An overview from WebMD.
Healthy Sleep Habits Resources
- Teen Sleep Habits: What Should You Do? A PDF with recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control.
- Why Do Teens Need More Sleep? A guide for teenagers from WebMD.
- Healthy Sleep Tips from the National Sleep Foundation.
- Help for Better Sleep section at the UCLA Health page on Sleep and Teens.
- Sleep Hygiene for Teens. A helpful handout from CHOC Children’s.