The teenage years are such a volatile time that “coming of age” movie themes are extremely popular. Television shows like “The Wonder Years” have succeeded at entertaining adults by taking them back to the chaos and turmoil of those transitional years. What many movies and television shows don’t reveal is the role that sleep deprivation plays in the chaos of adolescence. Teenagers need more sleep than adults, but factors of our modern lifestyle make it nearly impossible for most teens to meet those needs regularly.
Teen Sleep Needs vs. Reality
The best way to learn about typical teenage sleep patterns is to talk to a parent struggling to get their teen to put down their phone, turn off Netflix, and close their eyes before midnight on a school night. They may also tell you the horror stories of trying to drag a teenager out of bed for healthy activities on the weekends, which is when many sleep-deprived teenagers try to catch up on the sleep that they just can’t get during the week. Many teens experience a massive crash at the start of the summer as well.
It’s easy to assume that the sleep patterns of teens differ from adults because teenagers don’t have the responsibilities of their parents. The lack of structure may impact the heavier sleeping patterns of teens in the summertime, but there is something biological at play here. Teens experience a shift in circadian rhythm that naturally drives them to feel tired about two hours later in the evening. Rather than winding down around 8 p.m., they feel more wakeful until around 11 p.m.
This doesn’t change the fact that teens need at least nine hours of sleep. While at least nine hours each night is considered adequate sleep for teens, research shows that most teens receive closer to seven hours of sleep each night. Many parents will tell you that their teens often receive even less than seven hours of sleep on school nights due to one or more of the following sleep disturbances that come from our modern way of life:
- Early school start times.
- Afterschool activities, including social engagements, sports participation, academic clubs, and work.
- Electronic disturbance. Friends are literally in bed with your teen through the cellphone, tablet and computer.
- Emotional disturbances. Many teams experience mood swings and have intense emotional reactions to things happening in the world around them, especially with boyfriends, girlfriends, and struggles with friends and bullies.
- Misperceptions about sleep. Many teens feel that they are young and don’t need as much sleep as adults, which is the opposite of reality.
- Dependence on caffeine-spiked drinks.
With all of these factors interfering with their ability to get those nine hours of sleep each night, is it any wonder that sleeping disorders in teens are becoming commonplace? It’s estimated that up to 30% of teenagers may experience some form of sleep disorder, and parents of teens may convince you that the percentage is likely even higher.
Sleep Deprivation & Adolescence
A poll completed by the National Sleep Foundation in 2006 found a strong correlation between feelings of sadness and inefficient teenage sleep patterns. More than 70% of the teens who experienced depression and/or routine sadness also reported feeling tired during the day due to sleep deprivation. The signs of a sleep-deprived teenager are easily confused with normal mood swings and the growing pains of adolescence, but parents may notice one or more of the following signs of teen sleep deprivation:
- A tendency to fall asleep at inappropriate times without a cellphone, caffeine or other constant stimulants
- Problems waking up in the morning, which may lead to tardiness and/or unexcused absences at school
- Unexplained depression and/or signs of unhappiness
- Falling asleep in class or while doing homework, often resulting in uncompleted assignments and low grades
Teens are at greater risk for car accidents, dropping out of high school, drug and alcohol abuse, and making poor judgments that impact the rest of their life when they don't get enough sleep at night. They simply cannot deal with the hormonal surges and emotional changes that come with adolescence when their brains aren’t well rested.
Can You Turn It Around for Your Teen?
Experts recommend breaking typical routines of modern teen life in order to develop healthy teenage sleep patterns. They want teenagers to avoid caffeine, video games, computers, televisions, and even bright light through the windows in the evening. They also suggest sleeping in no more than an extra three hours on the weekends. Parents can also help by allowing their teen to select a mattress that they find comfortable and by setting their teen’s bedroom up for sleep success. This means eliminating electronics at least a few hours before bedtime. If there are any signs of sleep disorders, it’s critical that parents help their teen find professional help.