Sleep and Teenagers
For most of us, waking up is unpleasant. The first thing we hear in the morning is a blaring alarm, or the radio turning on, or in many cases, someone walking in and yelling at us that it’s time to get up. With this type of emergence into wakefulness, it is no surprise that most of us do not consider ourselves “morning people.” It is, after all, when we are seeking to transition out of what is perhaps the most important, and for many of us, our favorite part of the day. And for teens, the morning is an especially difficult time.
Doctors recommend adolescents get around 9 hours of sleep per night, but most are getting less than 7 hours a night, reports the National Sleep Foundation. This causes a number of problems for teenager. It leaves them sleepier during the day, and causes them to adopt abnormal sleep schedules on the weekends to try to make up for the lost sleep. These fluctuations in sleep patterns make them more tired.
The problem is not that teens are unwilling to sleep, as their obsession with sleeping on the weekend indicates, but that their schedule was designed for an adult instead. While the mind of an adult is typically ready for sleep at 10 PM, a teenager does not begin to produce melatonin, the hormone responsible for tiredness, until 11 PM, according to a study published in the journal Sleep Research. This means that simply setting an earlier bedtime for a teenager will in many cases not help them get more sleep. This same study also said that many teenagers were still in REM sleep, rapid eye movement or deep, dreaming sleep, between 6:30 and 7:00 AM, when most teenagers are required to wake up for school. The brains of these students, then, will have great difficulty functioning during their first class, and the sleep debt will hinder them throughout the day.
Researchers recommend moving school opening times to 8:30 AM, but transportation costs, after-school activities, and parental concerns, are cited as reasons to prevent these changes, despite rises in test scores in schools that opened later in Connecticut, Kentucky, and Minnesota.
Other issues would also be addressed by improved sleep. Childhood obesity has been linked to a poor sleep regimen, most likely due to both social factors, tired and cranky children are likely to eat more food, and biological factors, the hormone leptin that controls fat digestion can be altered by sleep deprivation. Likewise, sleep is known to improve immune system functioning. People who slept less than seven hours a night were three times as likely to contract a virus, one study found. Sleep helps the body focus on producing white blood cells, anthropologists believe. Finally, the CDC reports that “drowsy driving” accounts for thousands of teen car accidents every year, making a lack of sleep extremely dangerous for the more than fifty percent of teens who admitted to “drowsy driving” in the same Sleep Foundation study cited earlier.
We are only beginning to understand the functions of sleep. But what we do know now is that it is vital to our health in more ways than one, that teenagers are not getting enough of it, and that their sleep needs are different from those who design their schedules. And despite the preponderance of evidence linking poor sleep habits to obesity, decreased performance in school, depression, and and a variety of other issues, no one seems ready to do anything to fix the problem.