Sleep problems abound in our society. Among teenagers, there are many threats to a good night’s sleep and risks created that can spill over into the community at large. According to information from the Minnesota Sleep Society, sleep helps to govern the way we think, react and behave. Proper sleep, meaning 9-10 hours per night for adolescents, with sufficient opportunities for deep sleep and dream sleep, cleanses the brain. According to Dr. Matthew Walker, in his 2017 volume Why We Sleep, deep sleep periods reflect an internal pruning process in our neural networks that clarifies our ability to think clearly and creatively the next day. Good sleep gives the teen a better chance to exercise healthy decision-making skills in social, academic and self-care activities. Sigmund Freud thought of dream content as a gateway into our so-called unconscious and the deeper side of our souls, but modern neuroscience has demonstrated that cycles of dreaming alternating with deep sleep are absolute biological needs and promote the later stage development of the brain in adolescence.
When the brain has had sufficient downtime to reset, the teen can focus more efficiently on school learning, summon more energy and maintain safe reaction times. Research has shown that being awake for 19 consecutive hours or more in a 24-hour period can create a state of impairment akin to substance-induced inebriation. Good judgment eludes the adolescent, and getting behind the wheel means a greater risk of motor vehicle crashes or wrecks. Combining this type of daily sleep deprivation with common street drugs and/or alcohol, magnifies further the dangers of sleep loss.
According to data from the Minnesota Sleep Society (mnsleep.net) as young people move from 8th to 11th grades, average sleep times decline even more. Teens are sleep deprived for many reasons. Overscheduling with extra-curricular activities or sports, along with homework, pinches off precious evening time. Using power drinks to stay awake at night means flooding one’s system with caffeine, further stifling sleep onset. Most school districts across America do not defer middle or high school class start times till 8:30am. This practice does not take into consideration the biological cycle of teens, who naturally tend to stay up later. Cycles of deeper sleep and REM dream phase are still very much in evidence in the early morning hours around 6-7am. The teen brain is in sleep mode till after 8am. This conclusion is based on scientific evidence and anecdotal observation. Ask any middle or high school classroom teacher overseeing an academic learning task at 8am. Students are physically present but without proper sleep, they are not taking in useful information. Add boredom, distraction and low motivation to the mix and one can see how teens’ school performance tanks. What’s more, the sleepy teen may exhibit more irritability and resistance to instructions. The persistently sleep deprived teen is more likely to be late to school or absent altogether.
Teens burdened by fewer hours of sleep are more focused on rewards and less on delay of gratification. Sleep can be improved by following common steps of sleep hygiene, including regular bedtime and awakening times, eliminating stimulating foods or beverage in the hours before bedtime, curtailing long afternoon naps and obtaining plenty of physical exercise during the daylight hours. E-device use should be curbed in the hour before the anticipated hour of sleep. Exposure to natural light first thing in the morning helps regulate the body clocks. Melatonin is a sleep hormone naturally produced in the pineal gland of the brain. Melatonin acts as a darkness signal, letting the brain know it’s time to prepare for and go to sleep. Available over the counter or by prescription, melatonin is not considered to be a sleeping pill and may be more effective when used with awareness of one’s unique body or circadian clock rhythm. Consultation with a pediatric sleep specialist is advisable. By taking charge of sleep and making sleep a priority (every day of the week, not just weekdays) teens can reduce the chances of being involved in motor vehicle crashes, and they will be less likely to resort to the use of substances to fall asleep. Commonly prescribed medicines like certain psychostimulants can sometimes trigger insomnia. This kind of problem should be addressed with one’s prescriber, physician or other medical provider. The stressors buffeting teens, precipitated by peer pressures and person-to person drama, hormone changes, gender identity worries, body image concerns, abuse, harassment or bullying in-person or online, are all too common. Under constant bombardment from life events, the level of cortisol, a key hormone associated with the recruitment of the body’s stress response, rises at night instead of decreasing. This can foster a cascade of negative outcomes, including sleep difficulties, self-prescribing, mood disorders, anxiety and drowsy driving. When sleep is restful and of sufficient length, the teen’s brain can keep the thinking and emotional facets of the brain in balance. There are numerous options to reduce stress, including mental health counseling, Yoga, physical workouts, medication and group supports. Teens experiencing ongoing sleep problems can benefit from cognitive behavioral therapy, mindfulness and education about good sleep practices.