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Go to Bed: Teens and the Importance of Sleep (Why They Don't Get Enough)

deprivation learning memory SAT school start time sleep teens

It seems like sleep is the new buzz worthy topic in the health and wellness space. Everyone, old and young, is talking about sleep. I’m having a bit of a sleep battle in my own household. My oldest son is 10 years old. Lately, he has been a bear to wake up in the morning. What’s worse, on those days that he struggles to wake up, he also struggles to fall asleep at what I consider the appropriate time. In our house that’s 8 pm, sometimes 7:30 pm if the kids are being particularly frustrating. What’s going on? Why can’t he fall asleep? Let’s take a look at what is probably going on.

Previously Held Beliefs About Sleep

  • We sleep when we’re tired. Not true. Anyone who’s experienced jet lag knows this.
  • The brain rests during sleep. Again, not true. The brain is highly active while we’re sleeping.

What Tells Us to Sleep

  • Sleep patterns are actually determined by a biological clock. This clock changes the timing and duration of sleep during different times in our lives. It just so happens that the teenage biological clock begins its shift around age 10 (Bingo.) (1). It’s called a phase-delay, which means that their sleep window starts later in the evening and ends later in the morning. This is what makes it difficult, if not impossible, for pre-teens and teens to fall asleep before 10 pm...and what also makes early mornings such a struggle.

Why We Need Sleep

  • Sleep is important. Severe sleep deprivation can cause death. Exhaustion has caused many celebrities to seek medical attention (I now believe their claims!). It’s a biological necessity.
  • Onto the less dramatic side of sleep: we need it because it affects learning and memory (1). When we sleep, the brain is practicing what was learned during the day. It is distributing new information into the appropriate regions and strengthening nerve connections, which also affect memory.

Teens and Sleep Deprivation

  • The National Sleep Foundation Recommends 9-11 hours of sleep for kids 10-13 years old. They also recommend 8-10 hours for teens 14-17 years old (2).
  • So, if an adolescent is getting less than these recommended times, then he or she might be sleep deprived.
  • Well, we know that sleep is important for learning and memory, so sleep deprivation will negatively affect both.
  • What’s more frightening is that sleep deprived teens show higher rates of depression, low motivation, low grades, and weight gain (1, 3).
  • Driving drowsy is a real risk (a majority of teens report doing it). Also, 5% of teens report falling asleep while driving (4).

Causes of Teen Sleep Deprivation

  • Parents don’t set bedtimes for teens. What 15 year-old wants to be told that “it’s bedtime?”
  • Activities, such as sports and social commitments, keep teens out of the house later.
  • Teens have lots and lots of homework. Also, some teens put in additional hours studying for college entrance exams.
  • Teens have screens in bedrooms. The blue light emitted by screens of phones has been shown to decrease the sleep hormone melatonin (5).
  • School starts too early. Mic drop. This is a biggie.

School Start Times

  • Even if we “clean up” the environmental factors that affect teens’ sleep, we can’t fight biology. Teens aren’t functioning early in the morning. As a middle school teacher, I see this firsthand. First period students are almost always better behaved than classes later in the day. It’s not because they are more attentive or studious, it’s simply because they aren’t awake yet.
  • Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-San Jose) has been debating the topic in Congress for almost 20 years with her “Zzzz’s to A’s” Act (6). Most recently, this legislation has aimed to determine the relationship between school start times and adolescent health, well-being, and performance.
  • Some schools are starting to take this issue seriously by moving back their start time. Locally (to me in the San Francisco Bay Area), Menlo-Atherton High School has moved it start time to 8:45 am. Similarly, Gunn High School eliminated zero period and now starts at 8:25 am.

What a Teen Can Do (best case scenario)

  • Get outside in the sun early in the day (helps to set your sleep/wake hormones).
  • Sleep in a dark, cool room.
  • Avoid screens an hour before bed and remove screens from the sleeping area. Yes, this means keeping phones out of the bedroom.
  • Create a sleep routine and try to get to bed at the same time each night, around 10 pm.
  • Don’t sleep in too late on weekends to try to compensate for missed sleep during the week. Sleeping in too late can also affect the biological clock.
  • If your school starts around 8 am or before, consider talking with administrators about shifting to a later start time. It’s a big discussion, but it needs to start somewhere.

So, this struggle is real. I think the best strategy to tackle this problem is to make little changes where you can. I don’t know if it’s possible to be a teen and do all that you want and all that is expected, and still get enough sleep. The system isn’t set up that way. I think small, manageable changes are the way to go. Maybe you can manage to get to bed by 10 pm on most nights? That’s a win. Maybe you install an app on your phone that filters blue light? Another win. Try walking to school when the weather is nice to get that early morning exposure to sunlight. Win.

I think this is an important topic and I’d love to hear about how you deal with sleep or if you’re struggling with sleep deprivation. Please, leave a comment below and share your thoughts. Thanks for reading and for visiting the Test Prep Spot.




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