Sleep deprivation in teens: risky business?

by Tripp Underwood on October 6, 2011

Like toothpaste and orange juice, teenagers and 6 a.m. usually make for a bad morning combination. Between the threats of missed buses to the walking dead shuffle from the bedroom to the bathroom, mornings can seem like a nightmare for many households with teens. But with so many sleep-deprived teenagers staying awake until all hours of the night, this dreaded morning ritual comes as no surprise to most parents.

If your teenager is constantly staying up too late and is hard to mobilize in the morning, at least you’re not alone. A new study from the Centers for Disease Control indicates that two third of American teens aren’t getting enough sleep. This may not surprise many parents, but the study’s real take home message is that researchers are now linking sleep deprivation to something far more troubling than morning crankiness: Teens who get less than eight hours of sleep a night may be more likely to drink, use drugs, indulge in inappropriate sexual behavior, be depressed and lead an unhealthy, sedentary lifestyle.

It’s not clear if the teens polled in the study were engaging in risky behaviors because they weren’t getting enough sleep—or weren’t getting enough sleep because of the behaviors—but the bottom line is a healthy amount of sleep should be a priority for all teenagers. Unfortunately, that’s far easier said than done. Today’s teens live a jam-packed life; finding time to stay ahead of their busy schedules and still have eight to nine hours left for sleep may seem impossible to many.

Sanjeev Kothare, MD

“Between school, sports, part-time jobs, homework and recreation, a teenager’s day can easily go from 6 a.m. until 10 at night,” says Sanjeev Kothare, MD, interim director of the Center for Pediatric Sleep Disorders at Children’s Hospital Boston. “And once they’re done, they can’t just immediately fall asleep; it naturally takes some time to wind down. Before many teens realize it, the day is over and it’s almost time to get up and do it all over again.”

Despite the importance of a solid night’s sleep, making sure teens are getting at least 8 hours of sleep at night isn’t as easy as ordering them to go to bed earlier. It may be tempting for parents to blame their teen’s night-owl behavior on adolescent stubbornness, but their urge to stay awake later is actually rooted in them biologically.

People have a natural cycle known to scientists as the circadian rhythms, and as an internal clock to the rest of us.  This internal clock regulates things like our body temperature and appetite, as well as our sleep cycles. In adults and children, normal circadian rhythms have people getting naturally sleepy around 8 or 9 p.m., but like many aspects of the body, puberty disrupts circadian rhythms. As a result, teenagers have an internal clock that keeps them wide awake until 11 p.m. or later. Factor in distractions like TV, computers, video games and near constant socialization with texting and Facebook, and you’re left with millions of teenagers staying up late into the night despite an eventual early morning wake-up call.

With so many natural, social and technological barriers to an early bedtime, Kothare says it’s no wonder that a majority of America’s teens are sleep deprived. But expected or not, it doesn’t change the fact that too little sleep can have a serious effect on a person’s mental and physical health.

“There is enough data to prove that when a person is sleep deprived they can do bizarre things,” he says.  “If a teenager is repeatedly facing situations where they’re denying their bodies the right amount of sleep, it’s likely to have an effect on their cognitive abilities. That could easily lead to them making some poor decisions, including using drugs or having unsafe sex.”

Is sleep depravation hindering your teens’ school performance?

Some sleep advocates say there should be a national effort to have high schools start later; giving teens a much needed extra sleep time in the morning. Kothare says this sounds good in theory, but coordinating such a move would be extremely difficult. Bus availability, school and parental work schedules and logistics of later dismissal times would all be greatly impacted by a change in high school hours. What’s more, Kothare says if you give a teenager an extra hour in the morning, there’s a good chance he’ll simply stay up an hour later at night, negating the benefits of the whole plan.

Rather than completely disrupt the tightly balanced schedules of millions of Americans, Kothare says offering teenagers positive reinforcement to hit the pillow earlier may be a more reasonable approach. Having fewer chores, a curfew extension or an added privilege might be enough incentive to have some teens turn in sooner. “For teenagers, reward systems often work well for changing behaviors,” he says. “Sleep behaviors could fall into that category.”

And while sleep incentives may work in the short-term, Kothare says the best strategy to improving teen sleep habits would have them wanting to get more rest, instead of having the idea imposed on them.  To this end, he suggests devising education efforts aimed at teens that would reinforce the effects that too little sleep can have on a person’s health and physical abilities. There are already hundreds of programs aimed at warning young people about the dangers of substance abuse and poor nutrition and unsafe sexual activity, Kothare says education that could help reduce a potential cause of these behaviors would be a good, preemptive approach to a growing problem.

“We know that poor sleep leads to poor cognition, reduced memory skills, an increased chance of hypertension, diabetes and obesity,” says Kothare. “If you add increased risky behaviors to the list, it seems clear that direct education to teenagers is worth exploring as a preventive measure.”

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