Adolescent Sleep Deprivation is Risky, but Bedtime Routines Can Help

What if you had a strictly enforced 8:00am to 3:00pm weekday job? Then, you go to a second job, perhaps working as a competitive athlete, performing artist, or as a barista at your local coffee shop. After your second job, you get home around 7:30pm but then you have 2 to 3 hours of extra work to do for your day job. And that’s just work! You still want a social life, but there’s a lot of pressure to be connected 24/7. On top of all this, you suffer from severe jetlag, waking up at what feels like 4:00am. Sound like a perfect storm for burnout? Welcome to the life of many teens in America.

The crisis of teen sleep deprivation is on my mind —most of my research is about adolescent sleep problems and depression, and in my role on the Good Night Advisory Council I am thinking about ways we can help teens get the sleep they need through adopting bedtime routines. I have found that teens rarely have a regular bedtime routine, but this relatively simple practice can make a world of difference when it comes to getting enough sleep. Lack of sleep among teens has been linked to higher odds of doing poorly in school as well as more serious and even fatal outcomes, including car accidents; cigarette, drug, and alcohol abuse; and increased problems with mental and physical health. If we can help teens and their caregivers understand why a lack of good sleep is a big problem, then we can work together to help our teens thrive.

Why are teenagers so vulnerable to sleep deprivation? One often-overlooked reason is adolescent biology. Around puberty, all adolescents experience changes to their internal, biological clock and to their levels of melatonin, the hormone that helps to signal sleepiness in the body. These biological changes—completely beyond their control—make them prone to stay up at night and wake up far later than they would have before or will after puberty. Evolutionarily speaking, this likely made sense: clans needed strong and fearless members who could stay up at night to protect the rest of the community. Today, these biological tendencies remain even though we no longer need protection from wild animals. And now our communities often require teens to adopt schedules that might make sense for adults, but not for them.

I would argue that teen’s schedules are, in fact, much worse than most adult schedules. Adolescents are forced into a jet-lagged exhaustion that most adults would not tolerate. We have ample evidence that sleep deprivation sets off a brain-to-body signal that it is sick: it increases the body’s production of proteins designed to fight off infection. These proteins also signal a need for MORE sleep (hence the body’s desire to sleep more when we have a cold). When we are chronically sleep deprived, the proteins start attacking everything, including healthy cells and neurons, leaving us more susceptible to medical and mental illness.

The teens I see in my clinical research on depression and sleep difficulties are burnt out. Our teens are overworked and pushed past their limit before they’ve even gotten started. Some might be thinking, “Shouldn’t we be training adolescents to live like adults? Shouldn’t we stop babying them by allowing them to stay up late and sleep in? They’ll have to grow up at some point!” It’s true, teens do have to grow up, and thankfully, their biology knows that and gradually shifts to “adult” sleep patterns between ages 25–35.

Meanwhile, how can we help ensure teens get enough sleep? Changes to policy that delay school start times are important, and caregivers can make changes at home, too. We can support teens by urging them to adopt a regular bedtime routine. This could include things like limiting screen time in the hour before bed; keeping screens, especially phones, out of the bedroom during sleep; and winding down from the day by changing into comfy pajamas, reading a book (not on a screen!), meditating, or listening to soothing music. It may seem difficult at first, but if done each night then teens can look forward to bedtime. And, if caregivers practice what they preach and adopt similar bedtime routines for themselves, then together we can help our teens believe in the importance of sleep.

Eleanor McGlinchey, PhD, is an Assistant Professor at Fairleigh Dickinson University and a member of our Good Night Advisory Council. Read more about her here.

Eleanor McGlinchey, PhD

Help us support good nights for good days for all children, everywhere.