The Science of Sleepy Teenagers

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There’s a legitimate reason why teenagers fall asleep in class.

So what are the facts about teenage slumber, and how should society adjust to these needs?

The biology of human sleep timing, like that of other mammals, changes as one ages. This has been shown in many studies. As puberty begins, bedtimes and waking times get later. This trend continues until 19 years in women and 21 in men. Then it reverses. At 55 we wake up at about the time we woke prior to puberty. On average this is two hours earlier than adolescents. This means that for a teenager, a 7 a.m. alarm call is the equivalent of a 5 a.m. start for people in their 50s.

Biology is only part of the problem. Additional factors include a more relaxed attitude to bedtimes by parents, a general disregard for the importance of sleep, and access to TVs, DVDs, PCs, gaming devices, cellphones, and so on, all of which promote alertness and eat into time available for sleep.

The amount of sleep teenagers get varies between countries, geographic region, and social class, but all studies show they are going to bed later and not getting as much sleep as they need because of early school starts.

Mary Carskadon at Brown University, who is a pioneer in the area of adolescent sleep, has shown that teenagers need about more than nine hours per night to maintain full alertness and academic performance. Most students get around 5 hours of sleep a night, resulting in many of them falling asleep in class.  Evidence that sleep is important is overwhelming. Sleep disruption increases the level of the stress hormone. Impulsive behaviors, lack of empathy, sense of humor, and mood are similarly affected.

All in all, a tired adolescent is a grumpy, moody, insensitive, angry, and stressed one. Perhaps less obviously, sleep loss is associated with metabolic changes.

Adolescents are increasingly using stimulants to compensate for sleep loss, and caffeinated and/or sugary drinks are the usual choice. The half-life of caffeine is five to nine hours. So a caffeinated drink late in the day delays sleep at night. Tiredness also increases the likelihood of taking up smoking.

Collectively, a day of caffeine and nicotine consumption, the biological tendency for delayed sleep, and the increased alertness promoted by computer or cellphone use generates a perfect storm for delayed sleep in teenagers.

In the United States, the observation that teenagers have biologically delayed sleep patterns compared with adults prompted several schools to push back the start of the school day. An analysis of the impact by Kyla Wahlstrom at the University of Minnesota found that academic performance was enhanced, as was attendance. Sleeping in class declined, as did self-reported depression.

However, a later start by itself is not enough. Society in general, and teenagers in particular must start to take sleep seriously.

Sleep is not a luxury or an indulgence but a fundamental biological need, enhancing creativity, productivity, mood, and the ability to interact with others.

If you are dependent upon an alarm clock or parent to get you out of bed; if you take a long time to wake up; if you feel sleepy and irritable during the day; if your behavior is overly impulsive, it means you are probably not getting enough sleep. Take control. Ensure the bedroom is a place that promotes sleep—dark and not too warm—don’t text, use a computer, or watch TV for at least half an hour before trying to sleep, and avoid bright lights. Try not to nap during the day and seek out natural light in the morning to adjust the body clock and sleep patterns to an earlier time. Avoid caffeinated drinks after lunch.

We must do better and take sleep seriously.

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