Jul 8, 2010 by Bill Jenkins, Ph.D.
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healthy adolescent sleep habits

As dedicated parents and teachers, when we talk to adolescents, we tend to focus our coaching on coping with the big dangers like drugs, alcohol and sex. We talk a lot about the imperative of developing good eating and study habits. But when was the last time you talked to the teen in your life about sleep? Research has shown us that our young people’s sleep habits are suffering, creating negative ripples across their waking lives. Quite simply, we need to become better "sleep coaches."

Like breathing or eating, sleep is a physiological necessity. As sleeping and waking habits change during our adolescent years, youngsters begin to experience the effects of lost sleep. Even losing less than an hour a night on a regular basis can result in serious problems. In their 1998 study, "Sleep Schedules and Daytime Functioning in Adolescents", Amy Wolfson and Mary Carskadon examined the correlations between sleep/wake habits, student characteristics and daytime functioning (mood, performance and behavior). Their study of 3,120 students uncovered concerning trends:

  • Forty-five percent of tenth to twelfth graders go to bed after midnight on school nights, and 90% go to bed later than that on weekends.
  • On weekends, 10- to 15-year-olds get 30 to 60 minutes more sleep; by age 18, that difference goes up to over 2 hours.
  • Reductions in sleep time were directly attributable to later bedtimes paired with no change to wake-up time.
  • Students getting C’s, D’s and F’s got, on average, 25 minutes less sleep and went to bed 40 minutes later than their counterparts getting A’s and B’s.

See Wolfson and Carskadon’s paper for complete data, but on the whole, adolescents in their studies overall did not get enough sleep, which directly correlated with reduced capacities during the day.

So we know that these important minutes of sleep are being lost, but what are the neurological outcomes? In his 1999 study, "The Consequences of Insufficient Sleep for Adolescents," Ronald Dahl describes five effects that can create negative ripples across an adolescent’s life, such as: 1) sleepiness, 2) tiredness 3) mood, attention, and behavior, 4) impact of emotional and behavioral problems, and 5) bi-directional effects.

  • Sleepiness: While highly stimulating activities can stave off sleepiness, a sleepy brain drops into sleep mode during periods of low stimulation. For a sleep-deprived adolescent, activities like reading, driving and classroom learning can be prime dozing times.
  • Tiredness and decreased motivation: When we're tired, we find it difficult to initiate and follow through on tasks, especially those that we might find boring. Our motivation and ability to focus on future goals drops; we become less able to engage in activities like reading or studying.
  • Emotional variability: Sleep-deprived brains experience a greater range of emotions. Adolescents who haven’t had enough sleep are more likely to experience more extremes of responses like anger, aggression, frustration, sadness and impatience.
  • Attention and performance: Youngsters working with a lack of sleep experienced mental lapses in attention during simple tasks, as well as reduced abilities to perform more complex, multifaceted tasks.

So what can we do to change this trend and coach our young people to have healthier sleep habits? If knowledge is power, we can give them the facts. We can actively teach the importance of sleep and the science of circadian rhythms and our innate connection to natural cycles. We can inform our students about the importance of good, healthy sleep, and help them understand some of the real, serious consequences like those above. For some resources, check out this Circadian Rhythms Fact Sheetfrom the National Institute of General Medical Sciencesor these five ideas for better sleepwritten specifically for teenagers.

Finally, as parents, we can create quiet, comforting evening environments and rituals in our homes to move our families from the fast pace of the day to a slower, protected, unpressured environment where sleep can come. For hints and tips, check out Sleep Rituals: Training The Body And The Mindby Dr. Michael Breus (from the Huffington Post, January 2010).

Are the teens in your life getting enough sleep?  Share your observations on the Scientific Learning Facebookpage.