Why don’t teens get enough sleep?

You don't just "get used to" too little sleep. Sleep deprived teens suffer from many physical and emotional problems. Why don't teens get enough sleep?

Teens often do not get enough sleep. Most teens need 8.5-10 hours of sleep each night. Not 6 hours. Not even 8 hours. Most don’t get even close to meeting their needs and that’s a bigger deal than many realize. You don’t just “get used to” too little sleep. Sleep is very undervalued, but we need to prioritize it. Sleep deprived teens suffer from many physical and emotional problems. Add ADHD or anxiety into the mix, and it’s even worse!

This is part 1 of a 3 part sleep series. It will focus on what makes it hard to get enough sleep. Next up will be why it’s so important to get sleep, then the big topic of how to get more.

So… why don’t teens get enough sleep?

Body clock.

One of the most common reasons is that their biological clock (AKA circadian rhythm) makes it hard to fall asleep before 11 pm and school starts too early to allow them to sleep until 8 am, which would allow for a reasonable 9 hours. Nine hours are on the low end of sleep need for many adolescents. If teens are still growing, they will need even more!

Research shows that tween and teen sleep patterns are hormonally influenced. Your parents probably get frustrated with your late nights, thinking you’re in control of your bedtime, but you’re not. This isn’t an act of rebellion.

Research shows that the hormonal response to the 24-hour daily light/dark exposure that influences circadian rhythm is altered in the adolescent years. Adolescents physiologically stay awake later at night and therefore need to remain asleep later in the day.

It’s not your fault!

But sadly, it is your problem because you suffer the consequences.

Screens.

Melatonin is a hormone that is released from our pineal gland. We need it to feel tired. During the day the pineal is inactive. When the sun goes down and it gets dark, the pineal gland starts to produce melatonin. It’s released into the blood and helps us feel tired and sleep. Melatonin levels in the blood stay elevated through the night until the light of a new day helps to lower the levels again.

The light from smart phones, tablets, and computers interferes with our natural melatonin rising. This keeps us from feeling tired and falling to sleep.

It’s best to limit screen use for at least an hour before bedtime. I know that for many teens this is difficult because they have to finish their homework at that time. Today’s teens need their computer or tablet to do homework.

If you have any time during the day to work on homework, do it. This is even more important for kids who take stimulant medicines for their ADHD. This medicine is out of your system close to bedtime, so it will be harder to sustain attention, making homework more frustrating and less efficient. Homework will take longer to do after medicine wears off, which decreases the time for sleep and fun activities.

If you can’t turn off the screen, at least use a program that limits the blue light that prevents the rise of melatonin. I personally use f.lux. It’s free and works on PC, Mac, ipad, android, and Linux. I find that it really helps. Try it!

Phones.

On a similar note, phones distract us all from what we’re doing, including getting to sleep. They also can wake us if we forget to put it on silent when we sleep.

Playing that one last game or checking Instagram one last time gives our brain a dopamine hit. Dopamine is a neurochemical known as the “reward molecule” that’s released after certain behaviors, such as eating, exercising or reaching a goal. While physical activity is most commonly linked to dopamine’s release, social media and online gaming are now shown to give a dopamine rush. This is why these behaviors are so addictive. It’s hard to stop the habit. One of the easiest ways is to just not use it except specific times of the day.

Take charge of your phone use ~

If you don’t want your parents restricting phone use, set your own reasonable limits.

Maybe check for messages before you leave for school after you’ve gotten ready. This can let you know of any needs or changes for the day.

Check messages again after school for the same reasons. Allow a 30 minute period to play a game or look at social media after homework is done. Then put it away and do something else.

It’s important to do things other than online games and social media. Find things to do that you enjoy. This article’s about sleep, but there are many negatives to spending too much time on screens. If you can’t limit yourself, talk to your parents or your doctor.

Indirect effects of phone use ~

It’s not just the direct issue of using our phone when it’s bedtime that interferes with sleep. There are indirect things as well.

It takes longer to finish homework when there are distractions from the phone. Putting your phone in another room when doing homework will help you finish more quickly, allowing you to get to other things more quickly.

Think of the extra time you can have to hang out with friends, getting exercise and getting to bed on time if you limit your screen time!

School starts too early.

Most school districts around the country start school well before the recommended 8:30 earliest start time.

School districts that have started later start times have shown improved test scores, fewer absences and tardies, less depression, improved athletic performance, and better graduation rates.

Unfortunately, those schools are still in the minority.

Activities are too late.

It’s not uncommon to have regularly scheduled activities too late in the evening. Many activities in my area are scheduled to run until 9:30 or 10 on school nights for middle and high school aged kids.

When kids finally get home, they’re hungry, need a shower, and are ramped up so not ready for sleep. It can be well past 11 pm when they finally hit the pillow, so they need be able to sleep until at least 8 am to sleep 9 hours, but school’s already started by that time. It’s impossible for them to get sufficient sleep. After school naps might help, but not if there’s not enough time to fit it in between homework and the activity.

There’s no easy solution for this other than reviewing what’s really important and cutting back on whatever can be cut back. This might mean one less activity. Or maybe not taking every AP class or working fewer hours. All of these are important, but sleep is more important to your health and well being.

It will also take the adults in the community to recognize the benefits of sleep. Studies support later school start times, but there are many reasons schools haven’t adopted these. If you’re a real go-getter, get active in later start times movements.

Activities start too early.

I know many kids who must be at school before school actually starts. Whether it’s band practice, church study groups, sports, or taking a missed test before school, they all interfere with sleeping in, which is what teens need.

Again, this will take the adults in the community to recognize the importance of adolescents getting enough sleep. And for most teens, this means sleeping in because that’s when they’re physiologically able to sleep.

Medical causes of sleep deprivation.

If you suspect any of the following conditions are affecting your sleep, you should work with your doctor. Even if you aren’t sure why you’re always tired, talk to your doctor.

  1. Anxiety – recurrent thoughts keep popping up
  2. Restless leg syndrome – if your legs just need to move when you lay down
  3. Sleep apnea – pausing of breath, often associated with snoring
  4. Medications that affect sleep cycles – stimulants are commonly used for ADHD and can affect sleep
  5. Heartburn or acid reflux
  6. Hormone imbalances, such as thyroid problems – you might sleep a lot but still feel tired and have other symptoms
  7. Anemia, or low red blood cell counts
  8. Depression – every teen should have a depression screen yearly, but if you think you might be depressed, talk to your doctor now!
  9. Nutrition – if you’re not eating enough, or eating foods that are not nutritious, you could feel more tired. If you eat foods that cause spikes in your blood sugar, as those sugars drop you feel fatigued.
  10. Infections – we all need more sleep when sick!
  11. Celiac disease – talk to your doctor if you have chronic abdominal issues, such as diarrhea, vomiting, pain, or weight loss
  12. Chronic pain conditions – if it hurts, you can’t get comfortable enough to sleep
  13. Chronic sleep deprivation – I know this is counter-intuitive, but being tired can make it harder to sleep.
  14. ADHD – that race car brain just won’t wind down!

What difference does it make?

If you’ve read this far, you’re probably not surprised that so many teens (and adults) don’t get enough sleep.

What difference does it make if we’re sleep deprived? It turns out, there are a lot of consequences. Some you may know, some you may be unaware are related to sleep deprivation. Tune in next week to learn why we care so much about sleep deprivation!

Author: Kristen

Dr. Kristen Stuppy is a pediatrician who is passionate about sharing information to help others make informed decisions. She has a special interest in ADHD and has served on the board for ADHDKC.org since it began in 2012.

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