Teenagers & Sleep – A Guide

March 2nd, 2014

We all know what happens: the clock ticks to midnight on their thirteenth birthday, and suddenly, a bit like Gremlins, you're sharing a household with a monster that sleeps 'til midday, spends a lot of time with bedroom door closed, and communicates in monosyllables. That's how it goes, right?

Well, of course, that's a gross generalisation, but there's no smoke without fire. Adolescence is (if you can bare to cast your mind back and remember) a minefield of change, confusion and anxiety. Most parents approach it with a degree of trepidation, trying to think of anything they can possibly do to ease their child through these difficult years. Probably, quite frequently, they'll feel like they're drawing a blank.

Let's roll back a few sentences to that first list of teenage symptoms: “sleeping 'til midday.”

It's quite common for people to dismiss teenagers as being lazy, with an easy life, but in this case, it's all a bit (and these words might be quite familiar) unfair. Scientists have put a lot of time and effort in researching sleep, and its effect on our brains. It's absolutely central to the efficient functioning of most of our lives, and we spend about a third of our lives asleep—and yet none of us probably put that much thought into it. And if sleep is so important to any normal adult's life, imagine how crucial it is to a developing, growing young adult.

Can Sleep Really Be That Important?

In a word: yes.

The quantity and quality of your sleep has been scientifically proven to have an impact on, well, everything. Your physical health, your mood, your ability to fight off depression, obesity, creativity, stress, sensitivity to pain, memory, ability to learn, quickness to anger, ability to multi-task and capacity for empathy. That's the tip of the iceberg: it won't take much research to realise that that extra two hours you stayed up to meet a deadline, or wait for the laundry to finish... they could be a little stone in a pond whose ripples spread wider than you ever expected.

At the risk of repeating ourselves: if that's true for a normal, functioning adult, how much more might this affect an adolescent?

Teenagers: A Crash Course In The Body's Crash Course

Biology's Catch 22 goes like this: as a body enters puberty, its circadian rhythm shifts three hours backwards. Suddenly, having a sleep curfew of 9 or 10 o'clock isn't just something to complain about, it's actually close to biologically impossible. To prepare a body for sleep, the body releases the hormone melatonin. Very young children are flooded with it pretty much constantly, in short bursts. But in adolescence, its release is delayed until around about 11 o'clock at night, and the hormone carries on being pumped until well after sunrise. By contrast, adults have little-to-no melatonin in their bodies when they wake up.

What does that actually mean? It means that, when the alarm clock goes off at 8am, the teenager's body is still flooded with chemicals telling them to sleep, unlike an adult's. They're barely alert, and are having to fight every biological imperative they have to not give in to their bodies’ demands and simply sleep. That monosyllabic, monstrous grunt? Think of it more as a hard-won battle against physical restrictions on communication, and suddenly it's a whole lot more impressive. In fact, it's downright heroic.

Listing this as a series of scientific explanations might come off a little cold, and if you're having trouble imagining what this might feel like, try this: you have been flown to a time zone with four hours difference, thrust into a classroom, and asked to write an essay. You are expected to perform.

Now do this, every morning, for four years.

Decoding Jargon: Circadian Rhythm.
A Circadian Rhythm is a cycle of twenty-four hours experienced by the body. In terms of sleep, that means when the body naturally expects to be awake, and asleep. Sometimes, that can translate as the body keeping you awake at night when you are very tired. This is common in teenagers, when their internal clock helps them stay alert at night when they should be falling asleep. Scientist call this as a phase-delay. It also regulates who awake you feel in the mornings. Up until the age of 10, children wake up fresh and energetic to start the day.

Surely This Is Madness?

If science says that teenagers are being short-changed by a system that means they have to sleep exactly when their bodies are telling them to be awake, and to get up when their bodies are drenching them in chemicals to keep them asleep, why exactly do we do it?

School times come from a bygone era when youths had a job after school, or had to complete chores on a farm. The schedules were designed to fit around that. Nowadays, these school schedules fit inside the working patterns of most parents instead.

Huge cultural shifts mean that after-school activities are more likely to be sports clubs or band practice than milking the cows or ploughing the fields, but despite that, early class start times haven't evolved with the times. The consequences of this, as any teacher will tell you, are far more than an angry slamming of the alarm clock in the morning.

Chronic sleep deprivation in adolescents diminishes the brain's ability to learn new information, and can lead to emotional issues like depression and aggression. Until recently, sleep problems were considered symptoms of this, and it's only recently that scientists have suggested that sleep problems may actually be the cause. A Columbia University study shows that teens who went to bed at 10pm or earlier were less likely to suffer from depression or suicidal thoughts that those who regularly stayed awake well after midnight.

A Simple Solution

In the mid-1990s, a school in Minnesota took this research, and adapted it's schedule. It pushed its start time a hour and five minutes later. It was the first time in the nation that a school district changed it schedule to accommodate teenagers' sleeping habits.

There were lots of objections: parents who thought that it would detract from after-school activities, or others that needed pupils to babysit siblings after school, but most thought that the change in time would simply mean teenagers would stay up another hour at night.

In fact, nothing of the sort happened. Research showed that after-school activities were equally well-attended, and that an overwhelming majority of the students used their extra hour for sleep. Furthermore, the average grades of those pupils rose by 8%.

But that's just one school, you say. A few years later, a second, far more under-privileged school tried the same thing, yielding all the same results as above, as well as reducing students involved in car accidents by 16%.

Unexpected Benefits #1: Bullying

If asked to predict the benefits on school life of a teenager getting more sleep, academic success would have probably been number one on your list. Less expected is the difference sleep can make on the occurrence of bullying.

In 2011, a study tracked 350 elementary school children. About a third of the students regularly bullied their classmates. Researchers found that the more aggressive children were more likely to sleep during the daytime, and to snore, which are two signs of chronic sleep deprivation.

The science is simple: impaired sleep affects areas of the brain. When that's disrupted, emotional control and decision-making capabilities are also impaired.

Unexpected Benefits #2: Smoking

There's not a lot we can do about peer pressure and the still-present idea that smoking is 'cool'. We probably can't stop them giving in and trying that first cigarette and (sorry) you may not be able to either. But statistics show that sleep deprivation makes it exponentially more difficult to resist the temptation to smoke, or to give up on the addiction, and that affect is practically tripled for teenagers, around the age when many young adults first begin to smoke.

Decoding Jargon: social jet lag
Put simply: that feeling of being awake when you shouldn't, because it's too early, or too late. In other words: your actual pattern of sleep and work doesn't match what your body is telling you.

The less stress smokers have, the easier it is for them to quit. Social jet lag is actually an incredibly stressful influence, made worse because many people wouldn't think to identify it at all. Among those who suffer less than an hour of social jet lag per day, about 15% are smokers. By the time you reach a social jet-lag of five hours, 60% are smokers. Teenagers have a very different chronotype to children and adults. Teenagers, on average, are constantly experiencing about three to four hours social jet lag.

Decoding Jargon: chronotype
A chronotype is the pattern that the body thinks the body should naturally be awake or asleep during. Young children are 'early chronotypes' (unfortunately for young parents!) which gets slowly later as they grow up. During puberty, they become night owls. Around twenty years of age (actually—usually 19 in women, and 21 in men), they reach a turning point and the chronotype slowly shifts earlier again.

So What's Actually Happening To Your Snoring Teen?

Compared to most of the rest of science, there isn't a great deal of research gone into the field. The Greeks thought sleep was when your head filled with blood, and that we didn't wake up until it had all drained away. Other cultures suggested sleep was when we had 'run out of thoughts' for the day.

In the 1950s, scientists discovered, Rapid Eye Movement, and discovered that sleep is actually five different stages:

The first stage is so light that if you woke up from it, you'd probably not even be aware you had slept.

The second stage is similar, but with the appearance of short, seconds long brainwaves that only appear when we are sleeping. If you get this far, you'll know you were asleep if you wake up.

The third stage is deep sleep. The brain sounds out long bursts, called delta waves. The fourth stage is similar, but the waves slow down. This is the furthest your brain is ever from conscious thought. If you are woken up during this stage, you will be disoriented, unable to answer basic questions, and want nothing more than to go back to sleep, which is known as 'sleep drunkenness'.

The fifth stage is REM sleep, so-called because of the Rapid Eye Movements behind your eyelids. Here, your brain is as active as you are when you're awake, which is when dreams occur.

Unlikely Effects #3: Depression

While we're all quite used to having a bad morning here and there – feeling irritable or unhappy – research has shown that adolescents exhibit symptoms of a depressive mood on a frequent, if not daily, basis. Teenagers that ranked themselves highly 'depressive' upon waking correlated strongly to those pupils that reported not getting enough sleep at night and feeling excessively sleepy during the day.

Although it's easy to say that teenagers have an 'easy life' and 'no stress', surveys show that adolescents are twice as likely to say they are worried about things, or feel stressed or anxious, than an adult. Many adolescents also report feeling hopeless about the future, or feeling unhappy, sad or depressed much of the time.

All of this can come just from the simple link between sleep deprivation and a depressed mood, which most people can easily relate to. But there is science that links REM sleep to depression.

Studies show that the earlier REM sleep occurs in your sleep cycle (of, for the sake of example, eight hours), the more likely the person is to suffer from depression severe enough to be considered clinical. At a pinnacle, REM can start to occur forty-five minutes into a sleep cycle. That means the sleep has only have around about thirty minutes of deep sleep—the sleep that helps recovery, growth and wellbeing. It means they're also likely to be aware of a good majority of their night’s sleep, and wake up feeling unrefreshed and depressed.

Dreams are generally about emotional experience, very often emotion carried forward from your day. Sleep helps to 'down-cycle' them—in other words, the better your sleep, the better your brain has managed to calm down your negative emotions and process them.

The Catch-22 of this is that if we are regularly awoken earlier than intended, cutting short REM sleep, our bodies compensate. It moves REM earlier in the cycle, to avoid it being cut again. So that means, for our adolescents being awoken when their bodies are still telling them to be asleep, that REM sleep is being artificially shifted. We're not suggesting that getting your teenager up from school is going to shove them into clinical depression, but a small part of that process is happening, making it more difficult for them to process anxiety and feelings of sadness, at the one time in their lives when anxiety and feelings of sadness are coming at them from every angle.

Sleep For The Facebook Generation

We've all been teenagers, but very few of us can really have any clue what it's like to be a teenager in today's world of 100% connectedness. Every day, you are probably surrounded by information on four or five different screens, with 24 hour news cycles, artificial lighting on demand, and expectations of round-the-clock availability.

In the Victorian era, labourers in workhouses slept sitting on a bench, with their arms dangling over a taut rope in front of them. They paid for this privilege: this was a better alternative. Modernity might mean that sleep is more comfortable than it has ever been before, but it's actually more elusive. All down to something that is often referred to as 'circadian schizophrenia'.

What does that mean? Work, communication, news, entertainment: all of it is a twenty-four hour fact of life. It's ingrained in our heads that it never stops, and, on top of that, that it should be coming at us from more than one source at once. Sleep is often considered something to be put-off, or dosed up with coffee. Our chemical circadian rhythms don't match the versions in our heads, and the fight between the two means that sleep is very often impossible anyway.

So... What Can We Do?

We all know what happens: the clock ticks past midnight on their thirteenth birthday, and suddenly, a bit like Gremlins, you're sharing a household with a monster that sleeps till midday, spends a lot of time with bedroom door closed, and communicates in monosyllables. That's how it goes, right?

Well, no. Knowledge is the best weapon, and hopefully this article means you'll be less likely to tut at your drowsy teenager when you drag them down for breakfast, and remind them that at least they don't have to pay the pills and work for a living.

Short of becoming the Minister for Education, and changing the school times nationwide, you might be thinking there's not much you can do. The world is stacked against teenager's getting the right amount of sleep. It's probably going to be difficult—but then, you're raising a teenager, so you're probably quite used to that already.

But at least you can go into battle armed—and not necessarily with your teenager, who, after all, has the odds stacked against them. Hopefully the information in this article has given you some understanding into your teenager that will help you fathom their sometimes erratic behaviour. If you're that parent, we wish you luck! And if instead, you're the teenager, we wish you luck too!

Back