alarm clock

Why teenagers really do need sleep

It’s a running joke that teenagers sleep more than anyone else, and would gladly lie in until lunchtime every day if they could. But is the importance of sleep at this crucial stage of life something we’re all guilty of overlooking? Few (if any) young people receive much (if any) sound advice on how much shut-eye to get – or why it’s so important, both for academic performance and general health.

teenage girl sound asleep

Many teenagers confess to falling asleep in class…

Lynette Vernon, of Murdoch University in Perth, Australia, says teens need up to 10 hours’ sleep a night for healthy development. However, earlier this year, her team also discovered something you no doubt already suspected – late-night mobile phone use was seriously disrupting young people’s sleep.

The problems are twofold – the bright light from screens disturbs natural circadian rhythms, while any messages received immediately before sleeping lead to ‘emotional and cognitive arousal’, explains Vernon.

She’s not alone in worrying. Oxford’s Professor Russell Foster has previously warned young people of the short and long-term dangers of not getting enough slumber.

“The brain’s ability to process information starts to fall apart, and emotional responses begin to decline. Longer-term sleep disruption can lead to immune system suppression, and higher levels of infection,” he warned.

A lack of zeds also has a definite impact on mood, growth, and memory consolidation, which in turn can affect exam grades. Longer-term disturbance may lead to some types of cancer, and metabolic abnormalities including diabetes.

Psychologist Jane Ansell established Sleep Scotland to help children with special needs sleep well, and found some young people lost their ADHD symptoms once they started getting sufficient shut-eye. Now Ansell increasingly works in mainstream schools. Pilot studies she ran in three Scottish schools found – shockingly – that more than half (52%) of teens were deprived of sleep, with around a fifth saying they’d recently dropped off in lessons.

Meanwhile, hospital attendances in England for children up to the age of 14 with sleep disorders have trebled in a decade, according to NHS data which the BBC’s Panorama analysed earlier this year.

Even the casual follower of Channel 4’s reality show Educating Greater Manchester will have noticed how many of the pupils turned up for school each morning looking exhausted. And that’s just one example of what appears to be widespread sleep deprivation in young people.

One explanation could lie in the key change that happens in the body at night-time – the release of the ‘darkness hormone’ melatonin, which helps you fall asleep, whatever your age. While most adults produce this at around 10 p.m. each night, making them start to feel sleepy, research in recent years has found that teens tend to produce this a few hours later, at about 1 a.m.

teenage girl sleeping

The importance of sleep for effective revision cannot be overstated…

While increased use of screen time could be behind this, another argument is that the hormonal upheaval of puberty could be the cause.

In the US, some schools even moved the first lesson of classes back to give students the lie-in they craved – one saw a significant boost in academic performance.

Of course, you can’t always let sleeping teens lie. But, just sometimes, it might be the best thing for them. Encouraging them to ditch screens before bedtime could well be another – good luck with that one…

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