How Sleep Deprivation Is Putting Your Teen at Risk
Is your teenager getting enough sleep? According to the National Sleep Foundation, teens need about eight to ten hours of sleep each night, but most aren’t getting nearly enough. In fact, in one study, just 15 percent of teenagers surveyed said that they slept eight and half hours on school nights, and two-thirds of teens said they regularly get less than seven hours of sleep.
For those tired teens, it’s bad news all around. Research shows that they may be at risk for a number of serious issues, all caused by sleep deprivation.
The Scary Side Effects of Sleep Deprivation
Lack of sleep can cause serious problems for people of any age, but it’s especially problematic for teenagers. Teens are already going through a number of transitions in just about every area of life. Their bodies and brains are undergoing significant changes, they’re navigating the increased social and academic pressures of high school and the stress of preparing for college, and they may be starting their first jobs. All that can add up to a lot of pressure, busy days, and often, sleepless nights.
The consequences? According to several studies, teenagers who don’t get enough sleep are at increased risk for health-related problems, including obesity—both now and down the line—and skin issues, which can be difficult for teens already struggling with all-too-common body image issues. Sleep deprivation can also compromise teens’ immune systems, making them more likely to get sick (and more likely to miss school and as a result, hurting their grades.)
Worse still, lack of sleep can put teens at increased risk for depression and suicide, and raise teen drivers’ likelihood of being in a car accident.
Sleep is critical for learning, too. It’s when the brain learns and puts into context the information gathered during the waking hours. So while teens might think that they need to stay up late cramming for school, doing so can actually hurt their academic performance, causing lower GPAs and SAT scores.
The same holds true for athletic performance. Those late nights and early mornings can slow down the brain’s reaction time, hurting athletes’ performance and increasing their risk of injury.
Why Your Teenager Is Sleep Deprived
Why are teens so sleep deprived? There are plenty of external causes we could point fingers at, as well as some purely biological factors at play.
School start times have gotten earlier, with many starting well before 8 AM. At the same time, homework loads have gotten heavier and other academic pressures have increased for high school students, not to mention jobs, sports, and socializing.
But there are internal changes at work, too. The body’s internal circadian clock regulates the timing of sleepiness and wakefulness during the day. But during adolescence, a teenager’s circadian rhythm shifts, causing them to feel more alert later at night and making it harder for them to fall asleep before 11:00 PM.
Poor sleep habits can play a role as well. If teens regularly stay up late doing homework and rise early for school on weekdays, but “catch up on sleep” on the weekends by sleeping until noon, they’re actually creating a bigger discrepancy between their internal clock and the actual time. When Monday morning rolls around, it’ll be even more difficult to wake up, essentially a kind of jet lag.
Finally, screen time can have a negative impact on teen’s sleep. According to one study, the more time teens spend using electronic devices, the more likely they are to have sleep issues. The BBC reported that “more than two hours of screen time after school was strongly linked to both delayed and shorter sleep.” It’s possible that this is due to the distractions of games and social media delaying sleep. But it may also be because the brightly lit screens of these devices can send the wrong signals to the brain and delay feelings of sleepiness.
Four Ways to Help Your Teenager Get More Sleep
1. Dim the lights (then turn them up).
The circadian clock is controlled by a part of the brain that responds to light and dark signals. Light delays the release of the hormone melatonin, which promotes sleep. In teenagers, melatonin levels in the blood naturally rise later at night than they do in children and adults, which is why teenagers may not feel sleepy until later at night. Keeping the lights dim at night can help to cue the body that bedtime is approaching.
Likewise, exposing your teen to bright light in the morning can help signal to the brain that it’s time to wake up, making it easier for teens to roll out of bed.
Similarly, minimize use of electronics before bedtime, and, if your teen is using a device with a screen, have them turn the brightness down and hold the device farther away. This can help to prevent illuminated screens from sending the brain the wrong signals
3. Be consistent.
As much as possible, encourage your child to stick to a schedule. Try to minimize sleeping late on the weekends to make early mornings during the week easier. Discourage teens from napping after school or relying on caffeinated beverages to make it through the day as these can make it more difficult for them to fall asleep at night.
4. Reduce the pressure.
Many teens have packed schedules with school and extracurricular activities, but are there any areas where they could ease up? Perhaps your teen could work fewer hours after school, or participate in fewer sports or other after-school activities. Can your teen enroll in later classes or shift their school schedule? Does a school in your area offer later start times?
One benefit that we have heard from many homeschoolers and families enrolled in K12 online schools is that teenagers are able to get more sleep than they could in traditional school. And, studies show, this perk may also help them perform better academically.
Does your teen get the recommended amount of sleep each night? How do you encourage good sleep habits? Share your experience and advice in the comments.
Ashley MacQuarrie began writing professionally more than ten years ago and has covered education, technology, current events, pop culture, and other topics. A former homeschooler, she studied English and Film & New Media, graduating with a bachelor's degree from San Diego State University. Ashley has classroom experience working with children who have autism and other special needs. She has also tutored students from kindergarten through college and taught English to teens and adults at a language school in London.