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Why Are Teens So Tired? How to Amp Up Sleep and Fight Exhaustion

Last school year, my 16-year-old kept super late study hours. When I popped into her room to say goodnight, I’d find her analyzing class notes with her friend over FaceTime. I’ve long accepted that her high school study habits differ from mine, so I allowed this late-night digital interaction — she’s a studious kid and had a rigorous course load.

I thought my daughter was following the CDC recommended guideline that teenagers sleep 8 to 10 hours daily for optimal health. She claimed she was getting to sleep around 11:30 p.m., which meant she was getting at least close to the low end of that recommendation, and I assumed that was okay.

Boy, was I wrong.

Do teens need more sleep?

According to Lisa L. Lewis, teen sleep advocate and author of The Sleep Deprived Teen —- Why Our Teenagers are so Tired, and How Parents and Schools Can Help Them Thrive, (Mango 2022) parents might think their kids getting about seven and half hours of sleep at night is okay, but that estimate is a problem. Lewis says, “If you extrapolate the sleep debt that accumulates weekly, it has a significant effect.” She cited a Fairfax County youth survey that determined that each hour of sleep teens lose is associated with a 38-percent increase in feelings of sadness and hopelessness, a 42-percent increase in suicidal thoughts, and a 58-percent increase in actual suicide attempts. Not enough sleep also impacts school performance and driving acuity.

All of a sudden, my daughter’s late-night school work seems like a terrible idea.

Why are teens so tired?

According to Heather Turgeon and Julie Wright, child sleep consultants, psychotherapists, and co-authors of, Generation Sleepless: Why Tweens and Teens Aren’t Sleeping Enough and How We Can Help Them, my kid is not the only one staying up late to finish her schoolwork. They say: “The average US high schooler sleeps 6.5 hours and only twenty percent of teens get adequate sleep on school nights. A perfect storm of factors is contributing to the teen sleep deprivation crisis, a modern-day problem that has been exacerbated by the proliferation of smartphones. Too-early school starts, homework and activity overload, and irresponsible, addictive technology algorithms also contribute.”

Sometimes my kid has to walk to the bus stop when it’s still dark outside. Why does school need to start so early in the morning?

That’s a question you should be asking your school district administrators because more and more of them across the country are realizing that school doesn’t have to start at the crack of dawn; and that in fact, it probably shouldn’t.

Lewis explains that when teens start puberty, their natural sleep-wake cycle shifts toward sleeping later at night and longer in the morning. Waking up and going to school when their bodies are in sleep mode makes no sense, especially when it’s not good for them.

Why not use your voice and your vote to push for later school start times? You can initiate change in your community by speaking to school officials or by joining the non-profit, Start School Later, as Lewis did.

Asking your school district for later start times is not a novel idea. In 2019, California Governor, Gavin Newsom signed a bill into law enacting middle school start times no earlier than 8:00 a.m. and high school start times no earlier than 8:30 a.m. (Rural school districts are exempt from the mandate.) The California law went into effect in 2022. New Jersey, New York, Massachusetts, and the Virgin Islands are now considering legislation to follow suit.

Is there anything we can do at home to help our kids get the sleep they need?

YES. A great place to start making changes around teen sleep habits is by having conversations with your kids. Start by talking about their natural body rhythms and how important it is to stick to a consistent schedule so they get a good night’s rest.

The Benefits of Sleep

Explain that sleep not only supercharges our body but our brain, too, which is especially important when that brain is still developing. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, the prefrontal cortex — the area responsible for skills like planning, prioritizing, and controlling impulses — is the last part of the brain to mature. This makes teens more prone to engage in risky behaviors without considering the potential consequences of their decisions. When teen brains are tired, these behaviors can be heightened. This is why teens need sleep.

Tell your teens you want to help keep everyone in your family safe and healthy. Tell them, from now on, you need their help to make sleep a priority for your entire family. Then, try to incorporate these suggestions from the experts.

Introduce sleep rituals and bedtime routines.

Turgeon and White advise informing your teen that “a regular wake-up time and bedtime, even on weekends, fine tunes the body’s internal clock.”

Lewis says that, just as reading Goodnight Moon at bedtime primed our toddlers to nod off, similar sleep rituals work for our teens, too. For example, your teen might like taking a relaxing bath, doing some yoga poses, listening to a favorite podcast, or drifting off to sleep while listening to their favorite music (as my daughter does). Lewis says rituals work best when they resonate on a personal level, so encourage your child to choose one they like. While you’re at it, make a ritual for yourself, too.

Dim the house lights.

Lewis notes that “before electricity, people went to bed earlier. Darkness cues us to be sleepy.” She recommends dimming the lights an hour before bedtime and using warm-toned mood lighting. You might try swapping out your family’s regular lights for these sleep-inducing bulbs as I did, to give your eyes a rest.

Try a modified digital detox. Make it a family rule to disconnect from your devices at night.

Dr. Devorah Heitner, Ph.D. in Media/Technology and Society from Northwestern University and author of Screenwise: Helping Kids Thrive (and Survive) in Their Digital World says, “Kids have too many devices in their bedrooms which interfere with sleep. Most electronics activate the brain versus putting it in a relaxed state.” And the American Academy of Ophthalmologists says, “Too much exposure to blue light from screens in the evening can disrupt the circadian rhythm, slowing the production of melatonin — the sleep hormone — in our body.”

So, is the solution to take all of our teen’s devices away? Yes. No. Well, sort of.

Lewis says it’s not enough to tell our teens what they should do to get a good night’s sleep. She says we need to be good role models by showing our teens that sleep is also a priority for adults and that we should communicate when we notice something that interferes with our rest. She, for example, has been open with her kids about how being on her computer too late in the evening makes it hard for her to fall asleep.

Your whole family can try a complete digital detox, or you can modify the digital detox to limit the use of phones, tablets, laptops, and other screen devices for only a set time at night.

Teens are under pressure to connect with their peers. Give yours an excuse to exit peer situations gracefully.

If your kid is anything like mine, they spend a lot of time on social media. Between Snap Maps, TikTok, and Instagram, my daughter and her friends keep tabs on each other’s social lives and they’re on a quest to rack up ‘likes.’

Heitner admits that social media distractions stack the odds against our kids. On top of that, she says, “teens often say they’re carrying a friend in crisis through the night. But they can’t be on around the clock.” She suggests we show empathy by applauding their impulse to comfort a friend. But also, explain to them that they can’t bear friends’ emotional burdens alone. She recommends helping them identify and act upon dangerous situations like harm to self or others and encouraging them to reach out to a safe adult.

Heiter recognizes that teenagers game or group chat excessively into the night because they worry about how peers are perceiving them and because the interactive quality of social media keeps them emotionally immersed. Heitner recommends supplying teens with peer-pressure resistant language that either throws parents under the bus or teaches them to express their needs in order to exit sleep-challenged situations. When my daughter is up late at night chatting with her friends, for example, and I’m yelling (repeatedly) for her attention, she can excuse herself from the chat by saying, “I need to prep for my first-period Math test so I don’t get grounded. Let’s talk more tomorrow.”

Work together to create a contract that applies to everyone in the family, including you.

That’s all well and good, you might be thinking, but my kid is never going to put down their devices for any length of time.

Turgeon and Wright suggest your kids are more likely to do it if you get their buy-in. You can create a contract together that limits screen time and make the terms of that contract apply to everyone in the family, including parents. Working together will help ensure those terms are reasonable and make it easier for you to enforce those rules and follow them, too.

But what if your kid says they need to stay up late because they’re doing schoolwork? Should we make exceptions? Well, it’s your family and you can do what works best for you but Heitner says not to compromise on the limits you set and Turgeon and White agree that consistent bedtimes are key to getting a good night’s rest.

Can’t resist checking for messages? Position a charging hub far away from bedrooms, and have your entire family leave devices there at night.

Many (most?) of us are addicted to checking our messages and phone alert. That addiction doesn’t go away at night on its own. We need to remove the source of temptation, especially at night, if we want a good rest — which means, we need to remove electronic devices from our bedrooms. All the experts I interviewed agree that there should be a charging hub far away from bedrooms to prevent blue light from interfering with the body’s circadian rhythms and suppress our temptation to check our devices at night. They advise that all family members, including parents, deposit their devices there.

When your words are not enough, ask your teen’s mentors to emphasize the importance of adequate sleep.

Have you reached the stage where you’ve explained to your teen why sleep is so important, and maybe you’ve even set up some rules to follow — but it seems like they’re not listening? Maybe they’re even fighting with you about it. Heitner suggests bringing a coach, a choir leader, (or another mentor) into the conversation. For example, if your teen is on a team and the coach has the team make a pact to get enough sleep, that can help motivate your teen to get on board, too.

CONCLUSION

When I read shared the statistics with my teen — especially those relating to how sleep deprivation affects teen depression and suicide — she was genuinely shocked. Gifting her with this knowledge set the foundation for a deeper conversation. When I discussed implementing some of these tips she listened, which was also a win. The idea of a device curfew, as I suspected, was met with some, although not total, resistance. “Okay, fine,” she said. “But no matter what you say, if I have a test the next day I’ll need my computer and phone to study until late at night.”

All in all, my daughter’s response was more positive than I had anticipated. My plan is to continue to initiate small discussions where I supply her with the facts, which would then gradually encourage her to create healthier sleep attitudes and habits that lead to more dynamic changes down the road. I’m pleased that we’re making some headway on this subject and learning to take better care of ourselves.

Clearly the topic of teen sleep is nuanced, personal, and difficult for parents to tackle alone. But there is buzz around the topic and since the world is starting to listen, we can capitalize on the moment by informing ourselves and our teens about how to cultivate healthier sleep habits. This, in turn, can lead to a more balanced school year.

Holly Rizzuto Palker

Holly Rizzuto Palker’s work has appeared in Parents, The New York Daily News, The Independent, Newsday, Kveller, and more. She’s writing a book about her interfaith family. You can learn more about Holly on her website: www.hollyrizzutopalker.com where she shares stories about her parenting journey as an Italian-Catholic mother to three Jewish children.

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