Why Teens Need More Sleep Than They’re Getting
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Why Teens Need More Sleep Than They’re Getting

Image for sleep deprivation Sleep deprivation can be summed up as a chronic lack of adequate sleep. Too little sleep—even one hour less a night—develops over time into a “sleep debt.” This sleep debt can accumulate and is only wiped out when enough sleep is obtained. And sleeping more on weekends may not completely erase the debt. Switching back and forth from late hours on weekends to early hours on weekdays may even exacerbate the problem.

If sleep debt becomes too great, it causes sleepiness and can negatively affect performance, concentration, reaction time, memory, mood, and behavior control. A teen’s physical growth can even be affected by a chronic lack of sleep, since growth hormone is most active during sleep.

Teens need about nine hours of sleep per night, yet on average get around seven hours. Not getting enough sleep is only part of the problem, as sleep patterns also change during adolescence. Pubertal changes cause the sleep hormone melatonin to be released later in the day, which alters the circadian rhythms and, in turn, the sleep-wake cycle. The result is teens fall asleep later and wake up later. While this altered schedule is recognized as a normal part of puberty, it hasn’t changed the fact that many middle and high schools have early start times, cutting into possible sleep time.

School Performance

One of the most troubling effects of sleep deprivation is a drop in memory and attention, making learning more difficult and negatively impacting school performance.

In a study published in Child Development , researchers studied the sleep habits of 3,120 high school students. They then compared sleep habits to mood, school performance, and behavior. They found that struggling students went to bed 40 minutes later and had 25 fewer minutes of sleep than the students earning better grades. The students who got less sleep also experienced increased sleepiness during the day, depressed mood, and behavior problems. Even this small difference in sleep seemed to affect the way adolescents functioned during the daytime.


Too little sleep can also contribute to a negative self-image and depression . A study in the journal, Sleep Medicine , looked at the rate of depression among those with various sleep disorders. While previous studies centered on sleep apnea and narcolepsy, the researchers broadened their study to include insomnia , inadequate-sleep-and-wake hygiene, and restless leg syndrome.

The results showed a high rate of depression in people with sleep disorders. Over half of the 917 study participants were found to have some form of depression, while 3.5% experienced a moderate or severe form of depression. The researchers recommended that sleep deprived patients should routinely be evaluated for depression.

Drowsy Driving

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration attributes 100,000 crashes annually to drowsy drivers. Sleepiness and driving are a lethal combination because of slower reaction times, decreased attention, and a slower rate of information processing. Young drivers, especially those 16-29 years old, are among the highest at risk for drowsy driving.

In a study in the journal Human Factors , driving performance of sleep-deprived subjects was compared to those who were alcohol impaired. Sixty-four participants were tested. Some were partially deprived of sleep, receiving only four hours of sleep the night before testing, while others received no sleep the night before testing. The rest were given alcohol to induce a blood level of 0.07%. All participants were then tested during two hours of simulated driving. Two groups, the alcohol group and the no-sleep group did poorly when trying to stay in the lane while driving, and the researchers termed their driving safety as critical. The partially sleep-deprived group experienced a decline but was categorized as non-critical.

Sleep Measures

Getting enough sleep is more than a good idea. It restores us both physically and mentally. If your teen is irritable, has difficulty waking, or falls asleep spontaneously, sleep deprivation may be the culprit. Have your teen try the following steps to create a balance between sleep and a busy calendar:

  • Establish a calming bedtime routine.
  • Avoid stimulating activities, like computer games or television, before bed.
  • Steer clear of caffeine and nicotine after noontime.
  • Keep to a regular bedtime, even on weekends.
  • Make sure the bedroom is conducive to sleep—drawn blinds, no lights, TV, or computer.
  • Sleep in on the weekends, but no more than 2-3 hours later than normal.
  • Achieve a balanced schedule and avoid overloading.

Also, you can be a role model for your teen by having good sleep habits.


National Center on Sleep Disorders Research

National Sleep Foundation


Better Sleep Council Canada

The Canadian Sleep Society


2003 national sleep disorders research plan. National Center on Sleep Disorders Research, National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute website. Available at: http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/ . Accessed June 14, 2004.

Dahl RE, Lewin DS. Pathways to adolescent health: sleep regulation and behavior. J Adolesc Health . 2002;31:175-184.

Fairclough SH, Graham R. Impairment of driving performance caused by sleep deprivation or alcohol: a comparative study. Hum Factors . 1999;41:118-128.

FAQs: drowsy driving. AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety website. Available at: http://www.aaafoundation.org/resources/index.cfm?button=drowsyfaq#serious. Accessed May 29, 2008.

Vandeputte M, de Weerd A. Sleep disorders and depressive feelings: a global survey with the Beck depression scale. Sleep Medicine . 2003;4:269.

Wolfson AR, Carskadon MA. Sleep schedules and daytime functioning in adolescents. Child Dev . 1998;69:875-887.

Last reviewed May 2008 by Kari Kassir, MD

Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.

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