Teenagers and Sleep: Do they really need to get up so early?
It’s a new school year, so the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is fretting about … flu? Alcohol abuse? Nope, this time the agency is worried about lack of sleep among teenagers. About 70% aren’t getting the recommended minimum of eight hours on school nights, the CDC reports, and students who don’t sleep enough are more likely to be depressed, to drink sugared soda, to smoke cigarettes and so forth.
This is the moment to pull out the usual observation that correlation does not imply causality. In other words, lack of sleep isn’t necessarily causing depression and tobacco use. It could well be, for example, that depressed youngsters have a harder time sleeping. In fact, that’s probably the more likely scenario.
That said, teenagers don’t get much sleep and most parents, looking at their own kids, will say it’s a problem. There’s a visible difference between a well-rested adolescent and the grumpy character who slouches around after a late night and catches every cold and flu bug traveling around campus.
The CDC hasn’t been offering much in the way of solutions so far, but lack of sleep isn’t usually the teenager’s idea of fun. Adults place so many demands on them — do more homework or the students in India will take away your future job, get involved in the school play, community service and at least two athletic teams or a good college won’t consider you worth a glance — that sleep takes a lower priority in everyone’s eyes. I remember a coworker who said that while she was in high school, her mother made her stay up until 1:30 a.m. every day for extra study, telling her that teenagers don’t need more than five hours of sleep.
Then, of course, there’s evidence that teenagers’ internal clocks work differently than the scheduling demands we place on them. Their circadian rhythms are telling them to start winding down at 11 p.m., according to the Mayo Clinic, while school starts at about 7:30 a.m.
Of course, their computer time is often a big time chunk out of the day, but before we get too smug about their ridiculous social networking habits, let’s remember that prior generations tended to spend that extra time staring vapidly at a TV set each evening.
Authorities are good at making parents aware of all the items they must provide for their children — healthy, tasty, home-cooked meals with lots of vegetables; family dinnertime with stimulating conversation; involvement in school events for kids and parents alike; academic support; and now sleep. They just haven’t gotten very good yet and telling parents how to fit it all in.
Besides, as most parents know, sleep is like the adolescent version of potty training. There are some things you just can’t force a kid to do; toddlers and teenagers have more than a little in common.