10 May 2022

The problem of teens and tweens not getting enough sleep

From Afternoons, 3:10 pm on 10 May 2022

The mental health crisis among teens is more likely a sleep deprivation crisis, the authors of a new book say.

Lack of sleep and an abundance of mental health problems are not a coincidence say psychotherapist and sleep specialists Heather Turgeon and Julie Wright.

So how much sleep do teenagers need? How much are they actually getting?

Teenager in bed

Photo: 123RF

Teenagers need no less than eight hours, but ideally more, Turgeon told Jesse Mulligan.

“If you let a teenager sleep as much as they'd like, most will sleep around nine and a quarter hours.

“So, you could consider nine and a quarter to be the optimal amount of sleep for a teenager and by teenager we mean from about the age of 12 to 18 or 20.”

And the majority of teenagers are not anywhere near this, she says.

“About 80 to 90 percent are not getting that adequate sleep.”

It's hard to know how much sleep teens are getting, Wright says.

“Even if we know what time they go to bed, they could be staying up on their phones, they could be continuing to do homework into the night long after parents have gone to bed.

“And the other thing that happens in today's world with technology is a lot of teens sleep with their phone on their pillow or in their bed. And they wake up during the night to check to see what's going on, has somebody responded to something? Is there some news they need to check on? So, they not only have inadequate sleep, but they have interrupted sleep.”

Covid lockdowns were a mixed blessing for teenagers, Turgeon says.

“Initially when we had the lockdowns, many families told us that it was a relief because they didn't have to wake up and commute and the intense pressure in the morning was relieved.

“And teenagers’ brains we know are shifted, their biological clocks are shifted later, so they prefer biologically not just as a psychological preference, but really a physiological preference to fall asleep later and wake up later.

“So, during the pandemic, their bodies were 'Oh, thank you for letting me sleep and having less pressure in the morning' and start times were pushed later.”

But as the pandemic wore on, it was accompanied by a steep rise in technology use, she says.

“Technology is just antithetical to sleep, it just steals our sleep in so many ways. So, I think that the overall effect of the pandemic was really to squeeze teenagers’ sleep even more.”

There are certain tell-tale signs a teenager is in sleep deficit, Turgeon says.

“You would notice your teenager having a really hard time getting up in the morning, which is kind of most teenagers.

“The other thing is that they try to sleep in so much on the weekends because they're missing sleep, so desperately trying to make up for lost sleep on the weekends is another sign.”

However, this just compounds the problem, she says.

“It throws them into a state of jetlag almost where their brains get confused, and then they end up losing more sleep in the long run.

“We usually tell people to talk to their teen and come up with an agreed upon time to wake up on the weekend that's not so late.”

A sleep deprived brain sees the world through a negative lens, says Wright.

“We absolutely see a connection, and research bears out, that when people, teenagers included, don't get enough sleep, the areas of their brain that really help us when we are solving difficult problems or facing scary things - like global warming - our prefrontal cortex which helps us make sense of the world, it soothes us, it gives us perspective, it helps us with emotional regulation, that part of our brain is less active when we don't sleep enough.”

Meanwhile, the more primitive reactive parts of our brain are more active, she says.

“We tend to be short-tempered, we tend to feel hopeless and resigned. And that the incidence of depression and anxiety in teenagers directly is correlated with the increase in sleep deprivation, and sleep affects mood in a very specific way.”

Over the last couple of decades, mental health problems have been increasing in lockstep with sleep deprivation, Turgeon says.

“In the United States, there has been research showing that high schoolers, about 35 percent of them, are reporting persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness.

“And at the same time, the average sleep for high schoolers is about six hours. And considering that high schoolers would like to sleep nine, they're missing a third of their sleep every single night.

“So those two are absolutely connected. And we really believe if we could get them more sleep, we could go a long way towards solving the mental health crisis.”

One of the reasons teenagers need such a lot of sleep is their brains are undergoing huge changes, Wright says.

“They're very good at looking like mini-adults, and they're resilient, they're strong, they're healthy, they can push through, and I think a lot of us just think well they'll be fine, these other things are more important.

“But another way that they're different in addition is that teens are in a very unique period of brain development, their brains are undergoing a massive amount of reconstruction, and refinement and pruning.”

And most of this neurological work in the brain happens when they're sleeping, she says.

“This is one of the reasons that they actually need so much sleep and when given the opportunity, they will sleep that nine and a quarter hours.”

Research in the US shows given the chance, teenagers will fall into a deep sleep at school, Turgeon says.

“If you give them the opportunity to fall asleep, they fall directly into REM sleep.

“And that's what the majority of teenagers will do if brought into the lab during the morning. Actually, this is even studies that have been done at 8.30 or 9.00 in the morning, allowing teenagers to come into the lab and just letting them lie down and boom, they're in REM sleep.

“So yes, their brains are basically starving for sleep.”

But there are things parents can do, they both explain.

“We truly do believe in holding limits that are healthy for our children, and that at the end of the day, if we do it in a kind way, they'll still like us, they might even still love us.

“We really encourage parents of younger teens to hold on to those structures, to set limits around technology use, to park the devices and the chargers outside of the bedroom at a certain time every night and set these habits and don't let go of them so early.”

Natural melatonin production can also be harnessed, Turgeon says. 

“If we use light in a really smart way, we can, very often get melatonin to do what it's supposed to do in a natural way.

“In the book, we have a lot of different practices that we have parents and teens set up, for example, getting five to 10 minutes of morning sun within about an hour or two of waking up. And that includes the weekend.

“And that's paired with not sleeping in too long on the weekend.”

The main thing is to take the teenager along with you, let them discover the benefits of more sleep, they say.

“Just setting up some of those really simple, very manageable practices like getting the morning sun, and not sleeping in too much on the weekend and the parking devices and technology. There are some very practical things you can do immediately tonight that would make a big difference,” Turgeon says.

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