Insufficient sleep is a problem that plagues many of us, and the consequences can be deadly, especially among teenagers.
Many teens have irregular sleep patterns. They typically stay up late and sleep in late on the weekends, which can affect their biological clocks and hurt the quality of their sleep.
Teens need about 8 to 10 hours of sleep each night to function best. But most do not get enough sleep: one study found that only 15% reported sleeping 8 1/2 hours on school nights.
A study that was published in the Journal of Youth and Adolescence earlier this year took a closer look at just how much each hour less per night really costs teenagers, and the findings are disturbing.
The researchers surveyed an ethnically diverse sample of 27,939 suburban high school students in Virginia. Only 3 percent the students reported getting around 9 hours of sleep per night, and 20 percent of participants indicated that they got five hours or less. The average amount reported was 6.5 hours every weekday night.
After controlling for background variables such as family status and income, the researchers determined that each hour of lost sleep was associated with the following:
- 38 percent increase in the odds of feeling sad and hopeless
- 42 percent increase in considering suicide
- 58 percent increase in suicide attempts
- 23 percent increase in substance abuse
While this study does not prove that lack of sleep is causing these problems, and depression and anxiety can cause insomnia, data points to the lack of sleep being the culprit.
“The majority of the research evidence supports the causal direction being lack of sleep leading to problems rather than the other way around,” says study co-author Adam Winsler, a psychology professor at George Mason University.
Sleep deficits reduce brain function, further disturbing areas in which even well-rested adolescents struggle: executive function, self-control, and judgment.
“Parents, educators and therapists need to pay attention to the role of sleep in preventing mental illness among youth,” Winsler says. “Its effect is likely larger than most therapies and medications.”
Here are some tips to help your teenager get enough Zzzs:
- Establish consistent sleep and wake times – even on the weekends
- Create a comfortable and inviting sleep environment – the bedroom should be calming, cool (65 degrees is optimal, but no warmer than 75 degrees), and dark
- Create a bedtime routine – turn off electronic devices, take a relaxing bath or read a book (not IN bed), or listen to soothing music
- Avoid using a computer or watching TV while in bed
- Finish eating 2-3 hours before going to bed
- Exercise regularly (but not for a few hours before bed – it may keep you awake if done too close to bedtime)
- Avoid caffeine too close to bedtime
Speak with a healthcare provider if you believe that your child’s insomnia is linked with a chronic or serious emotional disturbance or a medical condition. Diagnosing the problem is the first important step to getting the quality of sleep your teenager needs. If your child is experiencing signs of sleep difficulty, speak with your family healthcare provider to find out more about treatment options.