Teens and the great sleep recession


Sleep helps teenagers stay happy, healthy and smart. Unfortunately, teens simply are not getting enough rest these days. Staying up late and sleeping in on weekends seem to have become the new normal. Heavy loads of homework, extracurricular activities, employment and mandatory “volunteer” work leave little room for social lives. Many teens stay up late on social media, because that is the only time they have for this necessary part of normal development.

The problem

But lack of sleep can lead to problems in every aspect of daily life. Teens need an average of nine hours of sleep per night, according to the 2014 National Sleep Foundation’s recommendations, with a range of seven to 11 hours. Yet, only 15 percent of teens get at least 8.5 hours. Lack of sleep can cause or worsen the following:

  • Learning problems/poor school performance
  • Behavior problems
  • Impatience/irritability
  • Anxiety and depression
  • Acne
  • Poor eating habits/weight gain
  • Falling asleep while driving
  • Substance abuse

Underlying medical problems, depression, falling asleep while driving and substance abuse can all be potentially fatal. Therefore, sleep problems in teenagers need to be addressed as soon as they are identified.

The evidence

Katherine M. Keyes, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of epidemiology at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health in New York City.  Keyes and her colleagues analyzed survey data on 272,077 adolescents. Children in 8th, 10th and 12th grade were included. Responses to two questions were analyzed: “How often do you get less than seven hours of sleep?” and “How often do you get less sleep than you should?” The researchers found that teens under 19 years of age are getting significantly less sleep than in years past.

The study, entitled “The Great Sleep Recession: Changes in Sleep Duration Among U.S. Adolescents, 1991-2012,” was published in Pediatrics on Feb. 16, 2015. Fifteen-year-olds were most affected, with adequate sleep dropping from 71.5 percent in 1991 to 63 percent in 2012. Girls were affected more than boys, as were minorities, city dwellers, and those from poor families. Teenagers from minority and poor families were likely to think they were getting enough sleep even when they were not.

We can only speculate on the multitude of possible reasons for this decline. The authors do point out the implication of a possible growing public health concern. They also emphasized how intervention is needed to change the trajectory of this trend, particularly in at-risk groups. Health care literacy education is recommended. However, this is easier said than done, as the following study showed.

In the same issue of Pediatrics, Yun Kwok Wing, F.R.C.Psych., and colleagues in Hong Kong describe their results of a school-based sleep intervention study for adolescents. The intervention included a town hall seminar, small class workshops, a slogan competition, a brochure, and an educational website. The students’ parents and teachers were offered sleep education seminars. After five weeks, the 1,545 teens who received the intervention were compared to 2,168 who did not.

Not surprisingly, the intervention had no significant impact on sleep duration or pattern among adolescents. However, it was effective in enhancing sleep knowledge and improving behavioral and mental health.

The solution

Health care providers, teachers, teens and their parents need to work together to ensure that our nation’s teenagers are getting enough sleep. First, underlying medical conditions need to be ruled out, such as narcolepsy, insomnia, restless legs syndrome or sleep apnea.

Once medical conditions are ruled out, there are some simple things teens can do to help improve sleep. Parents can help by reinforcing these simple steps:

    • Make bedtime a priority. Set a bedtime and stick to it even on weekends.
    • Schedule naps into the day. Be sure that naps are not too long or too close to bedtime.
    • Make the bedroom sleep-friendly. Keep it cool, quiet and dark. If need be, get eyeshades or blackout curtains. Let in bright light in the morning to signal the body to wake up.
    • Avoid caffeine close to bedtime or late in the day. Caffeinated substances include coffee, tea, soda and chocolate.
    • Avoid nicotine and alcohol, which also interfere with sleep.
  • Take prescribed medications that have a stimulant effect only in the morning.
    • Recognize overtiredness and call someone else for a ride. Drowsy driving causes more than 100,000 crashes each year.
  • Don’t eat, drink or exercise within a few hours before bedtime.
  • Don’t leave homework for the last minute.
  • Try to avoid the TV, computer and telephone in the hour before you go to bed. Quiet, calm activities like reading help with relaxation.
  • If the after-school activity schedule is too packed, thin it out. Let go of or postpone commitments starting with least important first.
  • Make sure adequate exercise is part of every day. Increasing physical activity is often all that is needed.

Persistent sleep disturbances can be a sign of depression, anxiety, substance abuse or underlying mental disorder. Teenagers do not typically ask for help when they are struggling. Many do not even want to acknowledge there is a problem until they have serious medical, legal or other negative consequences. Prompt intervention and treatment is necessary to avoid a downward spiral. Help is available and it can provide a path toward a bright, healthy future.

White River Academy fosters healthy habits by emphasizing the importance of sleep, exercise and nutrition. Boys who attend White River Academy learn lifelong daily lifestyle habits that support healthy bodies and healthy minds. For more information, click here or call 866-520-0905.

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