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Teenagers are stereotypically seen as lazy, sleeping in late on weekends and falling asleep in class. Yet these behaviors are often caused by their differing sleep needs and patterns, and the associated stress of sleep deprivation. Researchers have known for decades that adolescents need more sleep at different hours than adults do, and new studies are shedding light on both why this is and what parents and teachers can do about it.
In this article, we’ll guide you through the research on teenage sleep as well as the underlying science: how teenagers sleep, why their sleep patterns differ from those of adults, and the effects of sleep deprivation and sleep disorders. With this understanding, we’ll then cover the best advice for families and educators on helping teenagers achieve the sleep they need.
Just as with so many bodily processes, sleep patterns and needs change during the teenage years. This development can be described as a “handshake between biology and behavior,” and both of these factors can contribute to sleep problems in adolescents.
However, before discussing teenage sleep difficulties, it’s worth understanding the normal development of sleep patterns in adolescence.
There are several definitions of what counts as adolescence, but the majority of researchers group this age span into adolescents (aged 10 to 17) and young adults (aged 18 to 25). These categories are related, and the sleep needs of adolescents and young adults are closer than those of adolescents and adults.
However, as young adults age, their sleep naturally begins resembling that of adults as they grow closer to becoming fully-fledged adults themselves. For this reason, this article primarily focuses on the teenage years of 13 to 19.
Children may think of life as two stages — being a child, and being a grown-up. Of course, we never stop changing as we age, and our sleep needs and patterns can change a great deal even in our twilight years.
However, as with so many other things, the most dramatic sleep changes occur during adolescence and puberty. Both physiological and behavioral changes make an impact on sleep during the teenage years, and these changes make adolescent sleep different from that of both children and adults.
As infants and young children, we often sleep in two stages: a long period at night, then a nap during the day. These naps often disappear around the age of six or seven, with the length of sleep at night declining gradually to lower the amount of sleep needed even further.
Adolescence continues this trend, ferrying teenagers from the 9-12 hours required by younger children to the 7-9 hours of adulthood. Stuck in the middle, they need approximately 8-10 hours of sleep to feel their best, with younger teenagers usually requiring closer to 10 hours and their older peers feeling refreshed after eight.
As we will discuss below, most teenagers do not reach 8 — let alone 10 — hours of sleep. This is primarily due to dramatic changes in their circadian rhythms, changes which can then lead to developing a kind of “social jet lag” where their needs are counter to the structure of their lives.
The patterns of our lives, including when our bodies naturally want to sleep and wake, are called our circadian rhythms. These are controlled by an internal clock, called the circadian pacemaker, which normally runs on a 24-hour schedule. During the teenage years, changes to the circadian alerting system cause the majority of people to temporarily become “night owls” who function best when they fall asleep later at night and wake up later in the morning.
While this need for a later bedtime can be exacerbated by a teenager’s behavior, it’s important to note that — like all adolescent sleep changes — there is a biological basis to this difference. In fact, studies on teenage sleep are remarkably consistent between cultures.
Teenagers are physically and mentally very different than both children and adults, and their sleep needs are affected by both their behavior and underlying physical changes. In this section, we will cover why teenagers have different sleep patterns, the prevalence of sleep deprivation, and the damage sleep loss can cause.
As we grow up, we spend slightly less time in REM sleep and significantly less time in stage 4 sleep, a normal shift which is unnoticeable to most people. What is noticeable — to parents, educators, and teenagers themselves — are teenagers’ changing needs around sleep quantity and sleep timing.
As mentioned earlier, teenagers need less sleep than children and more sleep than adults. While not a problem in and of itself, it becomes more important when changing circadian rhythms interact with society’s expectations and make it more difficult for them to get enough sleep.
Puberty itself also appears to cause sleepiness, even without sleep deprivation. While children usually awake on their own, teenagers seldom do, and daytime drowsiness can be a problem for mid-puberty adolescents despite getting enough sleep. This, naturally, exacerbates the impact of sleep problems.
Melatonin, a hormone secreted by the pineal gland, partially controls our circadian cycles. Higher levels are secreted at night to prepare us for sleep, tapering off towards morning. Studies show that teenagers’ melatonin levels rise later than those of adults, making it challenging to fall asleep before this spike. Likewise, the delayed end of the melatonin cycle causes teenagers to wake later in the morning.
The reason for this circadian rhythm delay is unknown, but theories include:
While different people require different amounts of sleep, most teenagers need between 8 and 10 hours to feel sufficiently rested. Unfortunately, adolescents, like adults, rarely achieve these numbers.
According to a recent CDC survey, 57.8% of students in grades 6-8 reported that they didn’t get enough sleep during the week. The numbers were even worse among their older peers, with 72.7% of students in grades 9-12 getting less than 8 hours. (These numbers may be even higher, as teenagers are known to overestimate how much they sleep.)
In order to make up for not sleeping enough during the week, most teenagers sleep in longer on weekends:
|Average Weekday Sleep||7.6 hours||7.3 hours||7 hours||6.9 hours|
|Average Weekend Sleep||8.8 hours||8.9 hours||8.8 hours||8.4 hours|
Unfortunately, this tactic only serves to send their circadian rhythms further off their weekday schedules. The accumulated difference between actual sleep and required sleep is known as a “sleep debt”, and sleeping for longer after a period of sleep deprivation does not repay this debt. Furthermore, even the weekend sleep hours are only slightly higher than the minimum recommended time of 8 hours.
Sleep deprivation causes a range of effects, all of which can impact teenagers. Additionally, there are also related problems which are unique to adolescents.
While everyone knows how it feels to have not slept enough the night before, the cumulative effects of sleep deprivation can be harder to see. Sometimes they are even counter-intuitive; for instance, teenagers who don’t get enough sleep often feel more awake in the evening and so leave their work until then, leading to another late night.
Some effects of sleep deprivation on health include:
Teenagers are remarkably resilient, a quality which is reflected in the fact that most can still perform well at school even if they sleep less than 7 hours during the week. However, if that balance tips — if they aren’t able to sleep well on weekends, for example — their academic performance worsens. Sleep quality issues, like waking up at night, are also correlated with poor school performance.
The reason for this is understandable, as sleep deprivation is known to have dramatic effects on memory, concentration, problem-solving, and the ability to think abstractly. There is even a difference in brain gray matter volume which is associated with sleep debt.
Finally, sleep deprivation interferes with the process of learning. Students who fall asleep in class miss the lesson, tired students drift off and daydream, and loss of sleep time may even interfere with the organizing and consolidating of memories.
Parents and teachers have long searched for ways to prevent the frightening problems of youth: drug use, car accidents, behavioral problems, and risky decision-making. As it turns out, ensuring teenagers get enough sleep may be one way to combat these trends.
These mechanisms might be why teenagers who don’t sleep enough are more likely to have anger problems and take dangerous risks, including taking part in risky sexual behavior. Even more alarming, chronic sleep debt increases their risk of suicide.
Sleep deprivation has a separate effect on car safety. Driving while tired is known as “drowsy driving” and is thought to have led to 72,000 accidents in a single year. While adults should also avoid drowsy driving, it is considered even more dangerous for teenagers due to their lack of experience and lowered impulse control.
Teenagers often do not have the tools to ensure they get enough sleep, particularly when their biology and the structure of their lives disagree. By working together, parents and educators can help mitigate some of the effects of changing teenage sleep needs.
Most of all, experts emphasize that education — for both adults and teenagers — is one of the first and most essential steps in helping teenagers get enough sleep. By understanding adolescent sleep needs, parents and educators can avoid penalizing behaviors which are rooted in sleep deprivation. In turn, they can then help teenagers understand their bodies and how to best take care of themselves.
As with so many teenage battles, parents who want to help their child sleep better must keep a difficult but rewarding balance between encouraging autonomy and providing secure rules and guidelines.
In this case, parents can rest assured that science is on the side of creating family bedtime rules. Teenagers whose parents enforce an appropriate bedtime are happier and better-rested than their peers with more laissez-faire approach to sleep.
Modern teenagers are firmly plugged into technology, which may be making sleep more difficult for them. Research on the topic has shown that adolescents who use technology (such as smartphones, television, video games, or the computer) in the evening are more likely to be sleep-deprived.
This is likely due to two factors:
While setting limits on technology use can be difficult for parents and their children, it is worth discussing the problem with your teen and working out sustainable limits together. Teachers can support these by limiting the amount of homework which requires technology, as well as teaching students about the effects of technology on sleep.
The teenage years are full of activities outside of school, including structured ones like team sports and part-time (or even full-time) work. While these are rewarding, they can have a negative impact on sleep.
Work, for example, can cause students to lose 14 minutes of sleep a night for every ten hours of work. This leads to students who work 20 hours a week and lose 3 hours of sleep in the same period – not an insignificant number.
Parents, as well as teachers and students themselves, want teenagers to take advantage of extracurricular activities. However, the importance of sleep can be illustrated by Olympic gold medalist figure skater Sarah Hughes. As a teenager, she found both her academics and figure skating suffering. It was only after dropping her early morning practice under the advice of a sleep expert that she was able to improve in both, eventually winning gold at the 2002 Winter Olympics.
While educators are often limited in their ability to help students achieve better sleep, what tools they do have can be very effective.
Although teenagers have a unique set of sleep needs, the tools to achieve better sleep are much the same as those for adults. Below, you’ll find the best advice on how to help a teen get a good night’s sleep, as well as a brief discussion of sleep disorders in teenagers.
Your set of habits, rituals, and behaviors around sleep is called “sleep hygiene”. Just as you would teach your teenager about physical hygiene, they must also be taught how to achieve good sleep hygiene.
Many sleep disorders first appear at the beginning of adolescence, around the ages of 11 or 12. Since teenage sleep patterns can mimic certain disorders (particularly sleep-onset insomnia and circadian rhythm sleep-wake disorders), it can be difficult to tell what is normal and what is cause for concern.
Circadian rhythm disorders are less common in adults, but up to 16% of teenagers are considered to have this condition. While some of these cases are lifelong, others are resolved when adolescents grow up into more socially acceptable sleep patterns. Similarly, insomnia is a common complaint in teenagers, particularly post-menarche girls. In both these cases, symptoms can be a result of underlying issues or simply the mismatch of their sleep patterns with their schedule.
Some sleep disorders, such as parasomnias like sleepwalking and night terrors, are often resolved by puberty. However, other disorders (including hypersomnias like narcolepsy) first appear at the same time.
If you have concerns about your teenager’s sleep habits and whether or not they indicate a sleep disorder, speak to your family doctor. They will be able to offer personalized advice as well as screening for any potential disorders.
Being a teenager isn’t easy, and it’s made harder by sleep deprivation. By understanding the unique sleep needs of adolescents, parents and educators can help set teenagers up for success and avoid their being hindered by their natural sleep patterns.
Whether you’re a teacher or a parent, we hope this article has helped shed light on why teenagers have unique sleep patterns, as well as the best ways to ensure they get enough sleep.
Sleep is a complex topic, and understanding it better can help you and your family get a more restful night’s sleep. Follow the links below to learn more about sleep, as well as tools to improve your and your childrens’ sleep health.