Second to shift workers, teenagers are the most sleep-deprived group worldwide, according to Dr. Sarah Blunden, sleep psychologist and research fellow at the Centre for Sleep Research, University of South Australia.
As well as experiencing hormonal changes that make falling asleep more difficult, teenagers are one of the groups worst hit by living in a 24/7 society that constantly lures us into doing anything other than sleep. “Kids come to school talking about shows that are screened way beyond bedtime,” says Melbourne-based adolescent psychologist Andrew Fuller. “When I ask high school girls how many sleep with their mobile phones on, about two thirds of the class put their hand up.”
It’s not just technology that’s to blame. Some teens are simply over-scheduled. Conscientious, high achieving students who cram in lots of extra-curricula activities can be left energetically in the red.
No wonder teenagers are lapping up energy drinks such as Dare, Red Bull and Adrenaline Rush that have caffeine contents reaching three times that of cola drinks. Consumed often enough, these drinks can contribute to sleep problems and anxiety among young people, according to the Australian Drug Foundation.
Rather than push caffeine, English teacher Anton Anderson from Connecticut, promotes catnaps to improve teenage alertness. Concerned about seeing so many weary teenagers struggling to stay awake in class, he established a Power Nap Club for his overscheduled students. During the power nap club’s weekly meetings after school, Anderson soothes his students into slumber using a variety of relaxation and visualization techniques. If the feedback on his website is anything to go by, it seems that his students are soaking it up.
Blunden also endorses a strategically placed afternoon nap for teenagers. “If they take a 20 minute nap after school, that will give them about three hours of improved performance time so they can do some homework, afterschool job, or play sport. The good thing is a brief nap at that time is it won’t interfere with night times sleep.”
Simple, effective and brief, napping is a proven remedy for tiredness in a time-challenged world, but it isn’t exactly sweeping the school-based education system. Meanwhile, “teenagers are becoming more and more exhausted, leaving them too tired to learn and more prone to behavioral problems,” says Fuller.
Irritability, frustration, reduced concentration, poor motor co-ordination and a weakened immune system are just some of the effects of sleep deprivation. When teenagers don’t get the nine hours sleep they need for healthy functioning (nine and a quarter to be precise), poor performance at school and on the sporting field, can result. Worst still, pimples seem to flourish in sleep-deprived skin, according to Blunden. And the effects of chronic under-sleeping don’t get any better as you get older. Too little sleep amongst adults is associated with an increased risk of coronary heart disease, diabetes incidence, obesity, motor vehicle accidents, and all-cause mortality, according to Dr Gerard Kennedy, Melbourne-based sleep specialist.
No wonder parents want their teens to go to bed on time. But adolescents’ changing body clock doesn’t make it easy for them to fall asleep, even when they’re willing. After puberty, there’s a biological shift in an adolescent’s internal clock of about two hours. This means that a teenager who used to fall asleep at nine pm will now not be able to fall asleep until 11 pm, but they’ll still have to get up early for school. This can amount to a daily sleep debt of one to one and a half hours, and that’s not counting the effects of late-night partying. “The weekend sleep in can make up for a reasonable sleep debt,” says Blunden. But sleeping until midday on Sunday makes it all the harder to get back to a sleep schedule for school the next day.
This phenomenon, delayed sleep syndrome, is the most common sleep problem amongst adolescents, according to Blunden. It brings many tired teenagers to her sleep clinic, where she steps them through a sleep program designed to reset their body clocks. Initially the teenager goes to bed at the time they naturally fall asleep (eg 11pm). They still get up early the next morning, and are encouraged to get outside first thing, since daylight stimulates alertness by suppressing melatonin production, the sleepiness hormone. Blunden then moves their bedtime back by fifteen minutes, every three to four days, until the agreed-upon target bedtime is achieved. The schedule is adjusted if necessary, to ensure the teenager can fall asleep within fifteen minutes, frustration-free. All going well, a teenager can be falling asleep ninety minutes earlier, within a few weeks.
It’s a highly effective treatment, and it’s great for teenagers when they realise they can reset their own body clock. Blunden gives all the choice and control to the teenager, and asks parents to do the same, since no one else can change their sleep patterns for them.
That doesn’t mean there’s no room for parental influence. Establishing a switch-off time for mobiles, computers and TV is healthy for all the family. And it’s only fair when parents foot the bill.
Family routines that allow deceleration time at the end of the day, and one hour of screen-free time before bed, help prepare adults and children alike for sleep. It’s not just the drama of a TV show or computer game that can keep you awake. It’s the light in the screens that seems to directly suppress melatonin production and therefore sleepiness, according to Blunden. The colour that affects melatonin production the most is blue, the very colour that is most prominent in TV and computer screens. Not everyone is affected in the same way, according to Blunden, but it’s one more reason for banning TV’s from the bedroom.
Routines and rituals are not only great organisers – they are also powerful ways to help control family stress levels. Stress management is an important part of sleep hygiene, since some research has shown that children in families with high stress levels are more likely to sleep poorly.
Psychologist Andrew Fuller agrees that rituals (‘the things Mum or Dad always made us do’) are highly protective. “In frantic families – I try to put some of the ritual back in. Bedtime used to be a ritual – but no one’s saying it’s bed time anymore.” Fuller also recommends that families have “mooch time”, free from scheduled activities. And not just to enhance sleep. “You can’t get depth in relationships if you don’t spend unstructured downtime together.”
And if you’re concerned about the effect of mooch time on your teens’ performance – just remember that Archimedes, that monumental mathematical brain (born 287 BC in Sicily), had his famous Eureka moment of insight while lying in the bath!
HOW TO HELP YOUR TEENAGER GET ENOUGH SLEEP
- Establish daily quotas for computer, internet and mobile phone use.
- Don’t allow TV in your teen’s bedroom, it reduces sleep quality and quantity.
- Develop a family routine of having one hour of screen-free and food-free time before bed.
- Discourage stimulating drinks, such as tea, coffee, coke, energy drinks and sports drinks that contain guarana.
- Encourage a regular sleep schedule – going to sleep and getting up at about the same time each day.
- Encourage a brief after-school nap (20-30 minutes) if needed.
- Seek help, from a sleep specialist if possible, as soon as sleep problems arise.
Acknowledgments to Melbourne Sleep Unit
Studies show that teenagers who get less sleep are more likely to
be late or absent from school, fall asleep in school, and get poor grades.