Sleep is crucial for life. We all know how it feels to face the morning after a night of less-than-optimal sleep. Lack of sleep can make us grumpy, unable to focus, and more negative about life in general. And this is especially true for teens.
Sometimes it can be hard to sort out the reasons for a teen’s moodiness. But, no matter what’s going on, too little sleep is likely to make it worse.
In order to help teens avoid the risks that come with sleep deprivation, it’s important to understand the signs, the causes, and how to help.
Recognizing Sleep Deprivation in Teens
Here are a few common signs to watch for that might indicate that your teen is not getting enough sleep.
- Having trouble waking up most mornings
- Irritability and mood swings
- Falling asleep easily during the day
- Trouble concentrating or poor academic performance
- Sleeping very late on weekends
- Hyperactivity and nervousness
- Aggressive behavior.
“One of the metaphors I use is that [sleep deprivation] is like having an astigmatism. You don’t realize how bad your vision is until you get glasses or, in this case, good sleep.” —Mary Carskadon, PhD, director of chronobiology and sleep research at Bradley Hospital, Rhode Island
The Three Primary Sleep Disorders
For teens, the most common sleep issues are due to external factors, or insomnia resulting from stress and anxiety. However, there could be medical reasons as well. These are the three primary categories of disorder:
Ongoing difficulty (at least six months) in falling asleep and/or staying asleep; can be caused by a wide variety of factors. The most common among the disorders, insomnia affects 23 percent of Americans.
A variety of potentially harmful or disturbing behaviors include night terrors, nightmares, sleep walking, grinding the teeth, hallucinations, and sleep paralysis, in which a person temporarily experiences an inability to move, speak, or react while falling asleep or waking up.
Excessive daytime sleepiness, typically caused by intermittent wakefulness as a result of central nervous system disorders, such as narcolepsy or idiopathic hypersomnia; disruption due to apnea or restless leg syndrome; and inadequate duration.
Common Reasons Why Teens Don’t Sleep Enough
For most adolescents, nine hours of sleep is ideal, but very few of them are actually managing that. One study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control showed that less than nine percent of teens get enough, and the amount of rest they get decreases as they progress through high school.
It could be due to external reasons, biological factors, and/or stress.
External Factors That Affect Rest
Teens lead busy lives. Therefore, a number of external factors can contribute. These include the following:
- Leisure activities such as social media, Internet use, gaming, and television
- After-school activities that push study times later
- Heavy homework loads
- Schools with early start times
- Using caffeine or nicotine
- Light exposure from screens that cues the brain to stay awake.
Sleep Phase Delay in Teens
Along with environmental factors, there are physiological reasons why adolescents don’t sleep enough. Their internal biological clocks, also known as Circadian rhythms, keep them up later at night. This is called “sleep phase delay.”
Here’s how it works: Before puberty, the body typically becomes sleepy around 8:00 or 9:00 pm. When puberty begins, this rhythm shifts a couple of hours later. The body doesn’t become sleepy until 10:00 or 11:00 pm. But kids still need to wake up at the same time for school. It’s a recipe for sleep deprivation.
“Almost all teenagers, as they reach puberty, become walking zombies because they are getting far too little sleep.” —Cornell University psychologist James B. Maas, PhD, leading sleep expert
How Stress Affects Teen Patterns
While lack of sleep can increase mental health issues, it can go the other way, too: Sleep issues—whether insomnia or sleeping too much—can be a clear indicator that a teen is under stress.
Every teen experiences some degree of stress as they navigate hormonal changes, peer relationships, and academic pressures. But it’s important to understand the difference between normal levels of stress and teen depression or teen anxiety requiring treatment.
Learn how to recognize signs of teen anxiety.
Find out more about teen depression.
The Toll of Deprivation
Unfortunately, sleep deprivation can take a high toll on teenagers. It’s not just a matter of feeling sleepy in class. An ongoing lack of rest over time has the potential to severely impact emotional regulation in adolescents, teen mental health, teen risk-taking, and teen substance abuse.
How Lack of Sleep Impacts Emotions
Furthermore, it can wreak havoc with our emotions. In studies conducted by Matthew T. Feldner, a professor of psychology at the University of Arkansas, people who lost a night of sleep responded with more emotion to stressors presented in the lab. According to Feldner, lack of rest has a negative impact on the functioning of the emotional regulation circuit of the brain.
That means that a teen who gets less shuteye will be more likely to have extreme emotional responses to daily events. These findings are especially troubling because teens are already at risk for poor emotional self-regulation. In adolescents, the prefrontal cortex—the portion of the brain that controls self-regulation—is underdeveloped. Consequently, lack of down time adds fuel to the fire.
One study examined how teenagers reacted during the day when they didn’t get enough rest at night, as compared to how older adolescents and adults behaved. Scientists found that sleep-deprived teens found stressful situations much more threatening than the more mature study participants.
Teen Sleep Deprivation and Depression
Unfortunately, there is a clear link between sleep deprivation and depression. Researchers have found that teens feel more depressed and anxious when they don’t get enough rest. In a study of nearly 28,000 high school students, scientists found that each hour of lost downtime was associated with a 38 percent increase in the risk of feeling sad or hopeless, and a 58 percent increase in suicide attempts.
Another study found that high school seniors were three times more likely to have strong depression symptoms if they had excessive daytime sleepiness. “Sleep deprivation and depression go hand in hand among teenagers,” said the study’s lead author, Mahmood Siddique, DO, a sleep medicine specialist at the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School in New Brunswick, New Jersey.
Teen Substance Abuse and Lack of Sleep
Not getting enough sleep can increase teens’ likelihood of using drugs and alcohol. A study published in the Journal of Youth and Adolescence indicates that the disruption of the natural sleep cycle can significantly increase the risk of substance use, by interfering with brain functions that regulate the experience of reward, emotions, and impulsivity.
This is borne out by statistics from the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse. According to the Center’s research, high school students who get less than eight hours of sleep per night are significantly more likely than those who sleep eight hours or more to
- Use alcohol (46 percent vs. 34 percent)
- Smoke marijuana (23 percent vs. 17 percent)
- Become lifetime users of illegal drugs (16 percent vs. 11 percent).
Sleep Deprivation and Teen Risk Behaviors
Furthermore, teens who get less sleep tend to engage in risky behaviors, because their impulse control is compromised. A 2015 study found that sleep difficulties and hours of sleep can predict a number of specific problems, including binge drinking, drunk driving, and unprotected sex.
Learn the top five teen risky behaviors.
“Substance-related problems such as binge drinking, driving under the influence of alcohol, and risky sexual behavior are more important than others due to their association with reckless driving, automobile accidents, physical injuries and even death, as well as risk for sexually transmitted disease and unplanned pregnancy.” —Maria M. Wong, director of experimental training in the department of psychology at Idaho State University
How Teens Can Sleep Longer and Better
In an attempt to work with teens’ “late to bed, late to rise” schedules, a few school districts have experimented with pushing start times later, with definite improvement in teen academic performance, mood, and behavior. But most teens still have to get up early. Therefore, it’s important for them to find ways to sleep better and longer. These guidelines can help teens avoid deprivation.
Do physical activity during the day.
Parents can get the kids out for a hike, and support their involvement in team sports, running, dancing, or whatever form of exercise they’re naturally drawn toward.
Make time for naps.
Twenty minutes of shuteye after school or before dinner can give teens enough energy for homework and evening activities. But the nap shouldn’t go so late or long that it interferes with their sleep at night.
Set an electronic curfew.
Teens’ use of technology and social media often interferes. Turning off their computers and cellphones at a fixed time each night will help their brains wind down and get ready for rest.
Create a bedtime routine.
Teens can do relaxing activities before bed instead of using technology, such as
- Taking a bath or shower
- Listening to quiet music
- Writing in a journal
Don’t sleep too late on weekends.
Teens can catch up on their sleep on weekends, but they should not wake up more than two hours later than the time when they normally get up on weekdays. Sleeping till noon and then staying up late will throw off a teen’s resting schedule for the rest of the week.
Keep the bedroom dark and cool.
Light can interfere with the sleep cycle. Use blackout curtains to make sure daylight is not disturbing their sleep. All lights in the room should be off when the teen is sleeping. In addition, keep the room cool. The body prepares for sleep by lowering its internal temperature, and a cool room can encourage that process.
Avoid late-night snacks.
Teens should stop snacking at least an hour before bed. If they do snack after dinner, protein and fruit are the right choices, not grains or sugary foods. Candy or cookies will raise and then crash blood sugar, causing teens to wake up during the night. Teens should also avoid caffeine after 4:00 pm.
Practice yoga and meditation.
Sleep is a function of the parasympathetic nervous system, the system devoted to rest and digestion. Yoga and meditation are both associated with an increase in parasympathetic activity, which means they have the ability to improve shuteye. One study showed that young adults who practiced yoga regularly woke up fewer times in the night, a sign of better sleep quality. Meditation has also been shown to help.
Read more about the benefits of yoga for teen mental health.
Teens who try these sleep-inducing tools will find they feel better during the day. A good night’s sleep will improve every aspect of their lives, and help create health in mind, body, and spirit.
Watch Gina share her experience with healthy habits as an outlet to positive mental health.
Photos courtesy of Unsplash
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