If you think of sleep as brain fuel, then a majority of high-school-age kids are sputtering on fumes. In a national study, only about 8 percent of teens got the recommended nine hours of slumber on an average school night, according to the National Sleep Foundation, while most (69 percent) snagged seven or fewer hours.
Sometimes, high school students stay up until the wee hours because they have trouble drifting off to sleep. Body clocks tend to shift in adolescence, so kids may not feel sleepy until later in the evening, explains Lewis Kass, MD, a pediatric pulmonologist and sleep-medicine specialist in Mount Kisco. “In past generations, parents were told, ‘Aw, he’s just being a teenager,’ and it was kind of blown off,” he says.
Staring at a computer screen at night doesn’t help, either. Those screens emit a type of artificial light that tricks the brain into thinking it’s daytime “and that just throws a wrench into the whole body-clock issue,” Dr. Kass says. And with Twitter, Facebook, and texting, “you can be up all night communicating with your friends,” observes Elizabeth Alderman, MD, who sees adolescents at Montefiore Medical Group’s Eastchester practice.
There is much more at stake than the consequences of falling asleep in a classroom. A large study published in the journal SLEEP shows an association between short sleep duration and depression in adolescents, while research published in sleep and obesity journals suggests short sleep duration may increase the risk of being overweight or obese.
Sleep-deprivation symptoms also can be mistaken for those of a more serious disorder. Not long ago, Nadav Traeger, MD, director of Pediatric Sleep Medicine at Maria Fareri Children’s Hospital at Westchester Medical Center in Valhalla, began seeing a teen whose poor school performance and inability to focus raised ADHD concerns. After learning the boy slept just six and a half hours a night, Dr. Traeger discussed good sleep habits with him and his symptoms showed dramatic improvement. “The answer was not to give him a stimulant [for ADHD],” he says. “The answer was to give him sufficient sleep.”
What parents can do: Montefiore’s Dr. Alderman suggests helping kids establish good sleep routines, such as turning off electronics by a reasonable hour, and letting them sleep in on weekends, if possible. Make sure your teen avoids activities that can interfere with a good night’s sleep, like consuming big meals and caffeinated beverages before turning in for the night, says Adam S. Weissman, PhD, founder and executive director of Child & Family Cognitive Behavioral Psychology in Scarsdale. And don’t rely on sleeping pills or melatonin, he adds—they can be physiologically and psychologically addictive.