Teenagers like staying up late and hate getting up early. That’s hardly news. What parents might not realize is that it’s not all their kids’ fault. It’s as much their bodies as it is their behaviors keeping them up late at night.
The idea is that at some point in adolescence, teens’ circadian rhythms reset. They still need a lot of sleep—the National Sleep Foundation recommends 9.25 hours per night—but their bodies want to shift their schedule forward, meaning that they don’t get tired until later in the night and they have trouble waking early in the morning. It’s not peer pressure. It’s not irresponsibility. They are just wired that way.
The problem is that the rest of the world doesn’t accommodate this developmental phase very well, if at all. In some places, the school bell still rings long before 8 a.m. even though teens want and need to sleep until 9 or 9:30.
While it’s not perfect, none of Madison’s high schools begin before 8 a.m., says Joe Gothard, assistant superintendent of secondary education for the Madison Metropolitan School District. Pushing the start time much later would get thorny, he points out, as school hours are constrained by state-required instructional minutes, busing, sports schedules and teachers’ contracts. These are common objections, although some school districts in other states report improved attendance and reduced tardiness when they push start times later in the morning.
Of course, teens themselves aren’t helping matters any. Their own poor sleep habits, including erratic schedules and overconsumption of caffeinated beverages, only exacerbate the problem. The increasing reliance on personal electronic devices, such as tablets and smartphones, is also to blame. Not only do the devices emit light, which is widely known to interfere with sleep, but they are also interactive and the stimulation keeps brains buzzing at all hours.
So if it seems that teens are juggling too much with their constant communications, along with after-school activities, homework, jobs and socializing, it is because they are. A widely referenced study from the Journal of School Health found that ninety percent of teens sleep less than nine hours per night; ten percent sleep less than six hours.
Sleep loss can impair cognitive functioning, and some studies have found that better students, on average, sleep more than their lower-performing peers.
Parents can’t force their kids to sleep, but they can establish rules and create environments that are conducive to good sleep. For it to stick, though, parents really need to be role models, says Wisconsin Sleep nurse practitioner Kellie Mack. That means Mom and Dad need to turn off the TV, iPad and phone at least an hour before bed, too. If the kids can’t stay up all night texting, then the parents shouldn’t be allowed to play Words With Friends at 1 a.m. either.
Jennifer Garrett is a Madison-based freelance writer. She blogs about wellness in Health Kick.