From the curator: As the recent parent of teenagers, I have direct experience dealing with the challenges of making sure my own kids got adequate sleep. It sometimes makes it harder to be a parent when you know so much about the biology of sleep, and I can’t say that it has been a perfect run.
But I can tell you this much: Too many times, teens are blamed for things that are simply (biologically) out of their command.
Late night bedtimes and sleeping in are part of the transition between childhood and adulthood, informed in part by hormones, but also due to major final developments in the parts of the brain responsible for organization, judgment, problem solving, and other executive functions that seem to be nonexistent in adolescent brains.
Ours is a happier story than most: My kids went to a school district which, a long time ago, moved their high school bell times to 845am.
This has been a gift in some ways, a curse in others. One problem is the enactment of early-morning sports practices and “zero period” classes which coaches, arts directors, and teachers tossed into their schedules in defiance of our teens’ circadian rhythms.
This is a capital-S Society problem. The current demands placed on kids to perform has led to communities co-opting our children’s need for sleep in the name of “achievement,” which is sending the wrong message, but more importantly, putting our kids at risk for poor health throughout their lives.
Our solution was simple: My girls took mental health mornings whenever they needed them. Their grades were fine, so I took the idea of perfect attendance off the list of requirements.
They never took advantage of my willingness to make the morning phone call accounting for their lateness (or, in some cases, complete absence), and I never felt guilty for pushing back for the sake of my kids.
Both graduated from high school with high GPAs and some good self-care habits in spite of the demands of our community to subvert their real need to sleep.
It’s easy to oversimplify teen behaviors but the facts about circadian rhythms in teenagers are pretty firm: They aren’t going to even release melatonin until much later in the evening—in fact, they may regularly cleave to a 1am bedtime.
My older child had 530am sports practices at the pool several days a week (!), so it wasn’t hard to get her to bed by 11. But still, that’s only 6.5 hours of sleep, and she and her teammates would rely on caffeine in the morning to get them through those first few classes. You can hardly blame them.
My younger child has my rhythms, so she was regularly up past midnight (just like I am), yet still faced “zero period” music classes forced on her by a district which couldn’t offer music at all otherwise, thanks to budget cuts. So her nights were easily 6 to 6.5 hours of sleep, far less than the (at least) 8 hours that constitute an adequate night’s rest for teens.
Before you worry about your night-owl teen because you think they are up to no good at night, keep in mind that our society has not created a system that respects their biological needs at this time in their lives.
Because of this broken system, we have teenagers who are dependent upon caffeine, who regularly drive drowsy, who are moody and irritable (even suicidal), who are more likely to make poor choices about sex or drugs, who may end up with a criminal rap sheet before age 18, and who are facing higher rates of obesity and early onset of conditions like Type II Diabetes or hypertension… all because of this system.
SHC will cover the gamut of Start School Later efforts across the nation in August and September. Meanwhile, check out these links if you have a teen in your life who you’re concerned about. Even if sleep is not the dominating issue, chances are good, lack of sleep may be the influence that’s shaping their behavior.
B-society is a community based on chronobiology research led by Till Roenneberg from Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität in Munich.
Roenneberg has mapped out nearly a quarter of a million human circadian rhythms, which he describes in the book, Internal Time (Harvard University Press, 2012).
SHC strongly advocates for the efforts of B-society to bring awareness to circadian rhythms and how they are disrupted by cultural and social constructs like work and school schedules at a time when work is global, 24-7.
Delayed Sleep Phase Disorder
Top of the list of circadian rhythm sleep disorders haunting teens is something known as Delayed Sleep Phase Disorder. The National Sleep Foundation offers this basic explanation of DSPD here.
MAR 17: Vox
If you’re just not a morning person, science says you may never be
From the article: “When she was 19, Sokolis was diagnosed with delayed sleep phase, a disorder that sets her internal clock permanently out of sync with the rest of the world. It’s not that she needs more sleep than the average person. It’s just that her body prefers her to begin a seven- or eight-hour cycle after 3 am.”
SHC responds: Delayed Sleep Phase Disorder (DSPD) is common among teens. People with persistent insomnia may also find that they may actually have DSPD instead. Typically, teens “grow out” of this rhythm pattern by their mid-20s, but people can suffer from DSPD all their lives.
It’s not a sign of laziness to have DSPD. Nor might it even be considered a disorder, if you take society’s demand for a 9 to 5 workday out of the picture… it’s simply a disconnect between an individual’s rhythms and the demands of employers and schools. Plenty of hard-working people simply need a different work schedule, and that includes teens from middle school all the way through college.
Vox has taken up this cause regularly. Here are two other great personal essays worth checking out if you feel the pressure to be a morning person when you’re actually wired to be a “night owl.”
- JUN 1, 2016: “Late sleepers are tired of being discriminated against. And science has their back.“
- FEB 27: “The case for going to bed at 2:30 am“
Note: Not all teens experience DSPD. In fact, a small number experience the opposite problem, called Advanced Sleep Phase Disorder (ASPD), in which their rhythms are set for them to rise very early (before 5am) and go to bed much earlier than is typical (730 to 9pm).
Risk factors related to poor sleep in teens
NOV 3, 2016: NPR
Teen Night Owls Struggle To Learn And Control Emotions At School
From the podcast: “Night owls tend to have the hardest time with self-regulation, the researchers found. These students have more memory problems, are more impulsive, and get irritated and frustrated more easily.”
SHC responds: Most teens, even the “good ones” (with good grades, leadership skills, and social fitness) align with this description. It’s no longer valid to say that the “problem kids” are the only ones struggling. Sleep deprivation is an equal opportunity enemy.
MAR 1: Baraboo News Republic
McCumber column: Don’t forget time to sleep
From the commentary: “Raine was cautious to remind folks that lack of sleep doesn’t necessarily mean someone will become a criminal but, ‘Daytime drowsiness is associated with poor attention. Take poor attention as a proxy for poor brain function. If you’ve got poor brain functioning, you’re more likely to be criminal.’ ”
SHC responds: There’s science to back this up.
MAR 24: Car Seat Blog
Teens Create Road Safety PSAs
From the blog: “For the past three years, the National Road Safety Foundation and the Chicago Auto Show have sponsored a contest called Drive Safe Chicago for teenagers to create Public Service Announcements about distracted driving. This year’s winner, 17-year-old Hannah Christy, created a PSA about drowsy driving, something teens pulling all-nighters might be familiar with.”
SHC responds: It’s nice to see that drowsy driving is part of the awareness issues for teen drivers, who typically are hammered with warnings about impaired driving or texting while driving (for good reason).
The secret’s in light exposure
MAR 28: University of Surrey via ScienceDaily
Mathematicians predict delaying school start times won’t help sleep deprived teenagers
From the article: “The mathematical understanding of biological clocks suggests that adolescents are particularly sensitive to the effects of light consumption. However, the model can be applied to other age-groups as well. It can be used to design new interventions not only for sleepy teenagers but also for adults who suffer from delayed sleep phase disorders or people who are not synchronised to the 24-hour day at all.”
SHC responds: Don’t let the headline fool you; this is a discussion about chronobiology and teenagers. It’s not an argument so much against starting school later than it is a spotlight on why our teens struggle to go to bed early… and it’s not really their fault.
Sleep Review also shares research that shows it’s not only about getting enough sleep, but also sleeping according to one’s own rhythms.
The kids are all right
MAR 17: Girls’ Life
Not a morning person? You can *still* wake up happy
From the article: “When was the last time you woke up in the morning in a good mood? Mornings are *definitely* not for everyone, especially when you were up late the night before studying or your bed is just super cozy. But the a.m. sets the tone for the rest of your day, so starting it off positively is key. Here are our top tips for waking up, well, on the right side of the bed.”
SHC responds: It’s not like our kids aren’t trying to get their sleep, people. I think they probably work harder at it than most adults I know. The American Academy of Sleep Medicine campaigns for teen sleep through its “Sleep Recharges You” campaign; their infographic (below) targets the interests and concerns of teens and offers suggestions and a challenge to try new ways to prioritize sleep.
Parents… remember when you were a teen?
MAR 4: The Ridgefield Press
Letter: Is adolescent sleep deprivation due to bad habits or biology?
From the letter: “Should teens turn off devices at night? Absolutely. Should they go to bed at a reasonable hour? Of course. Should we force them to be awake when their bodies are not biologically supposed to? No. We should not.”
SHC responds: There’s been a lot of commotion about delaying school start times in Ridgefield, CT; this letter from someone with credentials in Public Health makes some very cogent points about how we need to rethink our beliefs and train our focus on what is scientifically proven.
OCT 17, 2016: The Conversation
Health Check: what determines whether we’re night owls or morning larks?
From the article: “Our internal body clock is set via a combination of biology (nature), light exposure and social scheduling (nurture). … Biologically, people sit on a bell-curve of ‘morningness and eveningness.’ Around 10% of the population are morning larks, and 20% true night owls.”
SHC responds: Yes, we can be “born this way.” In fact, if you were a night owl as a teen, you can expect your kids to be night owls, too (and the same holds true for morning larks or other chronotypes). So try not to be too hard on them!