Sleep Deprivation in Teenage “Night Owls”

May 5, 2019

With many high schools starting as early as 7 AM, and teenagers’ biological clocks telling them to go to bed after 11 PM, it’s not surprising that most teenagers are chronically sleep-deprived, putting them at risk for obesity, focus problems, anxiety, suicidal thoughts, and motor vehicle accidents.

It is natural for adolescents to experience a 2-3 hour delay in their internal sleep/wake schedule during puberty. This makes it harder for them to get the recommended 8-10 hours of sleep they need per night. So, to “catch up,” our “night owls” sleep late on the weekends and nap during the week, both of which push bedtime even later. Add in after-school activities, massive amounts of homework and late-night screen time and you have a cycle that is difficult to break.

Some school districts are wise to this and have begun starting school later. Others are not there yet for many reasons, mostly financial. RAND[1] recently published a study projecting a significant return on investment, if we delay school to begin at 8:30 AM. Although support is building for a later school start, only a few forward-thinking districts have implemented it.

Vacations are helpful, as teenagers can fall asleep–and wake up–when their body allows them, but what can you do the rest of the year? Good sleep hygiene is the key to helping your night owl – see below. When more help is needed, contact your doctor or a sleep specialist to discuss other interventions such as bedtime fading, chronotherapy, light therapy, and melatonin.

Healthy Sleep Habits for Teenagers

  • Make sure you are getting 8 to 10 hours of sleep per night (usually about 9 hours).
  • The body’s internal clock likes regularity so it is important that you go to bed and wake up around the same time every day.
  • To avoid “jet-lag like” symptoms on Monday mornings, make sure that your sleep/wake routine on weekends varies by NO MORE THAN 1 HOUR from the weekday. That means, try not to “sleep in” on the weekends.
  • Avoid “screens” for at least 30 to 60 minutes before bedtime because the light from an electronic device (i.e. phone, tablet, TV, computer) can suppress a hormone called melatonin in one’s brain, making it harder to fall asleep.
  • Note: It’s not recommended to have electronic screens in the bedroom.
  • Conversely, try to get at least 15 minutes of light in the morning (through a window or outside) to help maintain a stable internal clock.
  • If you are not getting enough sleep, you may nap during the day for up to 30 minutes, as a temporary measure until you have arranged your schedule to get enough sleep at night.
  • Driving when sleep deprived is like driving drunk (studies have shown). Avoid driving when you haven’t been getting enough sleep.
  • Regular, daily exercise can help one sleep better at night, so DO IT!
  • But avoid exercise for a few hours prior to bedtime, as this may make it more difficult to fall asleep.
  • In addition to other harmful effects, putting chemicals in one’s body may lead to more disturbed sleep so avoid caffeinated drinks, smoking, sleeping pills, alcohol, and drugs.
  • Make good sleep habits a family culture! This means that everyone in the family can benefit from the recommendations made here.
  • The younger the child is, the more sleep they need. In general, a 5-year-old needs about 11 hours of sleep, a 10-year-old needs about 10 hours, and an adult needs between 7-9 hours. Please refer to the National Sleep Foundation for age-appropriate sleep recommendations.[2]
  • If you are sleepy, snoring, leg kicking at night, have trouble falling or staying asleep, consult your doctor or a sleep specialist.

[1] https://www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RR2109.html

[2] https://sleepfoundation.org/press-release/national-sleep-foundation-recommends-new-sleep-times