Author: Heath Turgeon and Julie Wright
APA Style Citation
Turgeon, H. & Wright, J. (2022). Generation sleepless: Why tweens and teens aren’t sleeping enough and how we can help them. Penguin Random House LLC.
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What if you could easily enhance your focus, remember more, make stronger decisions, control your emotions and interact better with others, and get sick less often? All it takes is sleep! The benefits of sleep are endless. The father of sleep medicine, William Dement, once described sleep as life’s mood music. If you get good sleep, your background music is positive, and the world is seen through an optimistic lens. However, when sleep deprived, your background music becomes negative, and the world becomes dark and gloomy. We know that sleep is important for babies and children, but what about teenagers? The answer is, yes! Sleep is necessary for the important reconstructive processes of pruning and myelin formation. We have all heard the stereotype that teens are lazy and unmotivated. However, teens’ sleep clock starts to change in middle school. They generally can’t fall asleep until 11 p.m., and want to sleep until at least 8 a.m. Contrary to negative stereotypes, it has nothing to do with laziness. In addition, they have been accused of spending too much time on screens and are struggling with mental health issues. Yet, these symptoms are also associated with a lack of sleep. The first part of Generation Sleepless: Why Tweens and Teens Aren’t Sleeping Enough and How We Can Help Them focuses on the science of the teenage brain and sleep. Teens today are the most sleep-deprived we have ever seen. By some estimates, only five percent of teens get the necessary sleep on school nights.
The book’s second part provides the tools to improve teens’ sleep. Teenagers can start to regain their sleep loss by simply adding 30 minutes a night, totaling 2.5 hours by the end of the school week. The book provides lots of helpful hints to becoming a sleep-forward family. One of the greatest sleep predictors of adolescent sleep is the family’s sleep habits. Adolescents with parent-set, earlier bedtimes have the best indicators of positive mental health.
Teens simply do not get enough sleep! It might be due to the perfect storm of their shifting biology, technology, academic pressure, early high school start times, and the myth that sleep is a luxury rather than a necessity. Teens need 9-10 hours of sleep, not the current average of 6.5 hours of sleep they are typically getting on a school night. When teens sleep for only 6 hours, they are missing a quarter of their night’s sleep and half their REM sleep. The problem is often that we don’t see the issues associated with sleep loss. Instead, we see anxiety, depression, ADHD, apathy and underperformance, and drug use. Many teens and parents don’t recognize sleep loss as a problem. Sleep deprivation is a real problem and the signs include: waking up more than once a week, sleeping two hours or more on weekends, falling asleep quickly during passive events or morning hours, having low energy, being irritable, having a lack of interest, drinking caffeine or vaping, and late-afternoon or evening naps. A study found almost 10% of seniors in the U.S., say they have fallen asleep behind the wheel.
Middle childhood (6-10 years) is the ideal time for good sleep. But by middle school, many have lost their healthy sleep habits, and by age 15 most are sleep deprived. The child’s brain is known for its growth period, but the adolescent brain is going through an equally important stage of growth. During adolescence, the brain is beginning a new wave of brain reorganization. The prefrontal cortex is becoming stronger and efficient. Thanks to pruning, the unused neural connections are dying off and others are strengthening. While pruning is in process, myelin encases the pathways and increases speed. The authors use the analogy of how a town with small roads over time lays down major highways connecting places that are frequented. The flashy, billion-dollar upgrade happens largely while asleep. Brain cells in the frontal lobe are connecting to the limbic system during sleep. Many scientists believe that sleep deprivation during adolescence may permanently alter brain development and behavior. When you are not getting enough sleep it raises the risk of mental health issues, increases stress levels, decreases memory storage, and hampers learning and academic success. With less sleep, there are more risky behaviors. The higher powers of reasoning and impulse control are compromised. Teens, especially 15 to 16-year-olds, feel dopamine more intensely, leading to thrill-seeking and addictive behaviors. When you are getting enough sleep, neurotransmitters are released to increase positive emotion and focus, hormones strengthen and repair muscles, and the immune system works properly. Proper sleep leads to a healthy metabolism, positive eating behaviors, and weight management. Sleep is necessary to encode information from short-term memory to long-term memory.
Sleep is controlled by the circadian rhythm or the “master clock” that keeps time and creates the 24-hour cycle. Kids have a natural cycle of falling asleep by 8 p.m. and waking by 6 a.m. But the teenager has a “sleep phase delay” of two hours or more. It is hard for many teens to fall asleep before 11 p.m. Sleep is also controlled by the homeostatic sleep drive that increases the pressure to sleep, the longer you are awake. As adenosine, the by-product of burning energy, levels increase, you are more likely to sleep. The circadian rhythm works to give you a burst of energy late afternoon to help counteract the homeostatic sleep drive and keep you away into the evening. This is why you feel drowsy mid-afternoon and then get a second wind. Not only is the teen circadian rhythm delayed, but the sleep pressure builds more slowly across the day and the teen’s second wind happens around 9 p.m. The teen’s biology is working against the schedule created for them.
Teens are faced with several additional factors that contribute to their sleep problems. Teens suffer from a social jet lag, where their brain’s clock and the outside world are not aligned. When students sleep on different schedules during the school week and break, it is equivalent to flying cross-country twice a week. They face similar side effects of feeling hungry, tired, and out of sorts. Some additional symptoms include: daytime fatigue, weight gain, concentration issues, digestive problems, moodiness, negative thoughts, chronic health conditions, insomnia, and family conflict. In 2011, the smartphone gained popularity, and now over 95% of teens have smartphones or access to them. While many studies are finding a negative correlation between digital media and well-being, the fine print is also showing that screen time is connected to sleep loss. Sleep debt is a consequence of too much technology and the two share the same symptoms. The light from the screen tricks the body into keeping you awake. Technology also creates flow and keeps teens engrossed where they lose track of time. Smartphones have become the new teddy bear. Around 90% of teens have at least one device in their sleep environment. A final piece to the puzzle is early school start times and academic overload. Currently, over half of the public schools in the U.S. start during the 7 a.m. hour. When teens wake up at 5 a.m. to get ready for school, it is equivalent to an adult waking up at 3 a.m. Research has shown that when schools shift to later start times, students continued to go to bed at the same time, but had more time to sleep in the morning. There is resistance to changing school start times, but the benefits have been proven.
So, what can you do? While it may feel like there is no possibility for change, there is! The authors use the second part of the book to help teenagers and families create a plan of action. At home, teens can choose to limit time on homework, rethink commitments, understand sleeps benefits, and remember the power of a FOND family. The acronym stands for family rituals, open play, nature, and downtime. Parents set the example for their children. The authors go further by providing examples of how to take a sleep-forward approach as a family. They talk about how to use family meetings to set up an environment and schedule for success. They also provide the five habits of happy sleepers. Individuals can create a sleep bubble with the five habits that spell SLEEP. First, Set your sleep times. Regularity is important. Second, Lay out your three routines. Select two routines before sleep, and one after sleep to provide a cushion around your sleep bubble. Third, Extract your sleep stealers. Identify what is stealing your sleep and remove them, while also paying attention to environmental cues that enhance sleep. Fourth, Eliminate light and make your bedroom a cave. A wind-down time of decreased light an hour before bed can be especially helpful. Fifth, Practice a sleep-friendly daytime. What happens during the day impacts your night. Pay attention to early sunlight, exercise, daytime foods, caffeine, alcohol, bedtime snacks, and smart napping. This advice sounds amazing and you want teens to implement it right away, but it is important to recognize the need for teen motivation and independence. Instead invite teens to learn, brainstorm, and problem-solve around their own sleep issues. Point out the value of good sleep to students and let them decide to make the changes on their own. The authors provide a more clear and effective communication method called ALP. Attune- pause, listen, and lead with empathy. Limit-set- set and hold reasonable limits on a consistent basis. Problem-solve- help teens come up with their own solutions. Sleep is easy to dismiss because we are unconscious when it happens. However, it is a very important process for teens. Give the five habits, all five, a try for two weeks to create a sleep bubble that promotes natural sleeping powers.
Other Related Resources
Authors’ Website- Happy Sleeper
Division of Sleep Medicine at Harvard Medical School- Resources section
Psychological Concepts and Figures
Delayed gratification- Marshmallow experiment
Excitatory vs. inhibitory
Homeostatic sleep drive
Hormones- Leptin, Ghrelin
Neurotransmitters- Serotonin, Dopamine
Reticular activating system
Social jet lag
Unconditional positive regard