Teens and Sleep: How Much They Really Need (And Why It’s So Important)
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The teenage years are full of firsts — adolescents walk the rocky and winding path of puberty, transforming from children to adults in a few short years. And while their bodies grow and mature, their brains undergo a renovation of their own. All this change requires a lot of sleep, but teens and sleep don’t always mix, and this age group often doesn’t get enough. Read on to learn about how much sleep teens need, what can happen if they don’t get it, and how to help them achieve the right amount of snoozing.
What Happens During Our Teenage Years
Entering your teenage years comes with a lot of change. During your teen years (ages 13 to 18), your body and mind grow and transform at an astonishing pace. (1) Every aspect of your person is affected physically, emotionally, and intellectually.
This process shapes children into adults, and not without all kinds of growing pains. Voices drop, hair grows in new places, and plenty of new hormones surge for the first time. Mood swings abound, and amidst that chaotic background, teens begin to develop more independence, learn their values, and discover their sexual identity. (1)
Intellectually, the brain is remodeling itself, which influences decision-making. (1) Teens are also being introduced to more complex studies in school to nurture their growing brains. Whether they latch on to English literature or lean into the fascinating world of physics, they will need all the brain power they can get.
As if that isn’t enough to cope with, teenagers also experience a biological shift when it comes to their circadian rhythm, or biological clock. They naturally fall into a later sleep-wake cycle, and melatonin is released later in the evening, causing teens to sleep later. (2) Additionally, melatonin levels decrease across the board during adolescence — there have been many debates around school start times because of this, which we’ll dive into more below. (3,4)
Yikes — that is a lot of change. And what fuels all of these important modifications? You guessed it: sleep.
How Many Hours of Sleep Do Teenagers Need?
While you may feel like your teen sleeps most of the day away, experts have found that a lot of teens don’t get enough sleep. (5) But how much is enough? According to The American Academy of Sleep Medicine, children and teens need different amounts of sleep each day depending on their age range: (6)
- 1 to 2 years old: 11 to 14 hours (including naps)
- 3 to 5 years old: 10 to 13 hours (including naps)
- 6 to 12 years old: 9 to 12 hours
- 13 to 18 years old: 8 to 10 hours
Knowing the optimal amount of sleep for teenagers is one thing, but helping them get what they need may be easier said than done. According to recent studies, around 73 percent of teens get less than eight hours of sleep per night. (7,5) Sleep loss builds up night after night, and teens may not be able to fully pay off their sleep debt during the weekend. (8,9)
We’ll let you know how you can promote better (and longer) sleep in your teens, but first, let’s take a look at why it’s so important.
Why Is Sleep Important for Teens?
You may be watching your teen grow an inch a month, but their brains are developing just as fast. When teenagers sleep their body repairs itself, creates new cells, solidifies memories, and fights off infections. (10) When teens get adequate snooze time, they can experience better: (6)
- Attention span
- Emotional regulation
- Mental health
- Physical health
And of course, sleep provides teens with valuable time to recharge. “With so many other stressors in life, it’s very important for [teens] to get a full night’s sleep to be able to manage academic, social and hormonal changes,” Dr. June Seliber-Klein, MD, neurologist and sleep medicine physician tells Sleepopolis.
Most people get a little cranky when they skimp on sleep. But for teenagers, the effects can be even more pronounced. Emotional health and mental health are closely linked, but emotions specifically refer to strong feelings toward a person or object as a reaction to an event. Emotions can cause physical effects, too: They can make your heart race and your hands clammy. Not the best recipe for sleep!
Sleep deprivation can lower teens’ ability to regulate their emotions and behavior. Good sleep, on the other hand, promotes better mood and faster sensory processing when emotional situations hit them throughout the day. (11)
Physical Health and Development
Teens do some of their best growing during sleep. Without anything else to worry about, their bodies can concentrate on development. “The growth hormone is secreted during deep sleep, and we want them to continue to get those important surges [of that hormone],” Seliber-Klein says. (4)
Growth and development aside, teens also need sleep to maintain good health. “Teens who are sleep-deprived are more likely to be overweight or obese, have difficulty controlling their emotions, and have problems with their memory and concentration,” sleep medicine physician Dr. Chester Wu, MD tells Sleepopolis. Poor sleep has also been linked to: (3,5)
- High blood pressure
- Increased risk for cardiac events
- Less physical activity
- Pain in the lower back, neck, and abdomen
As kids navigate the turbulent teen years, they are more prone to mental health disturbances. In fact, about 50 percent of adult mental health issues first crop up during adolescence. (12) Sleep-deprived teens are at a higher risk for depression, anxiety, suicidal thoughts, and behavior problems. (3,13) With the mental health deck stacked against them, it’s that much more important that they get the sleep they need. (14,5) On the flip side, when teens get good sleep, they find they can tackle mountains of homework, balance music lessons with baseball practice, or memorize their lines for the school play with gusto!
Have you ever tried to complete a complex task after a terrible night’s sleep? Making sense of a weekly report at work, or even trying to make a grocery list can feel overwhelming when you’re running on fumes. At school, teens are learning at breakneck speed. New concepts are thrown at them daily, and sleep allows the brain to remember what they learned the day before, as well as cram more new information in.
“Academically, sleep is essential for concentration, memory retention, and cognitive function, all of which are necessary for school performance. Teens who are sleep-deprived are more likely to have difficulty paying attention, learning new information, and completing schoolwork,” says Wu. (5)
Teenagers often get a bad rap for making some not-so-excellent choices during their youth. That’s because the rapid changes in the adolescent brain make them more sensitive to perceived reward. (15) For example, when they try alcohol or take a chance with a romantic interest, the strong feelings that follow can leave them searching for more.
Once their brains get a taste of these rewards, it can make teens more willing to take risks to feel that rush again. Insufficient sleep can heighten their desire to try more risky experiences and potentially make some poor decisions. (15)
Why Teens Are More Sleep Deprived Than Ever
The teens of today are dealing with a host of challenges earlier generations never had to face. “Teenage sleep needs are significant,” Wu says, “and academic pressures, extracurricular activities, and socializing can limit the time available for sleep.”
Between the popular technology in many an adolescent’s room, the unique stress of social media, and an ever-growing emphasis on after-school activities, teenagers are having a hard time getting good sleep.
And then there’s the aspects fully out of our control — sometimes roadblocks to good sleep are out of our hands. Teens can’t help it if their school starts early, or if they have a mental health or sleep disorder. But the more you understand about these sleep-stoppers, the more you can do to lessen their effects.
Early School Start Times
Since teens naturally shift their internal clock to fall asleep and wake up later, early wake-up calls for school can cause less sleep. “The timing of sleep matters,” says Wu. “Studies have shown that later school start times align better with teens’ natural circadian rhythms, leading to improved academic and health outcomes.” According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, middle and high schools should start at 8:30 a.m. at the earliest to allow teens to get enough rest. (3)
The pressure to perform academically can cause stress in any student, and stress can keep teens awake or fragment their sleep, says Wu. Sleep loss in teens can up their stress levels and dampen academic performance. (18) However, as they get better zzzs, they will be able to concentrate better, remember more, and maybe even enjoy school. (gasp!)
Sandwiched between the school day and late-night scrolling are the many activities teens get involved in during the school year. “[Teens] have hours of homework, which keeps them up late into the night, and some may have after-school jobs or activities,” says Seliber-Klein.
While keeping your teen engaged in after school activities may seem like a good thing, it’s important not to overload them: One study found that teens who had more than three or four hours of extracurricular activities were more likely to engage in behavioral problems like bullying or fighting, likely because they don’t have time to rest and decompress. (19)
Still, extracurriculars can provide many benefits — like exercise — which can improve sleep. (20) But some studies have found too many can eat into sleep time. (21) Extra activities before school can especially disrupt teenage sleep by interrupting their natural circadian rhythm. And many parents report a lot of pressure to get their teens busy with extracurriculars for a strong college application. (22,23)The key here is balance: It’s good for teens to be engaged, but it’s equally as important that they have adequate time for rest.
Since social media came on the scene, teens have latched onto the trend with fierce tenacity. According to recent surveys, almost 20 percent of teens watch YouTube almost constantly, and about 15 percent spend every moment possible on TikTok and Snapchat. (16) According to recent research, teens spend an average of nine hours a day online. (17)
Studies have shown social media use has a strong connection with poor sleep. Between the blue light shining on their faces and all the emotions they can feel as they scroll through their friends’ highlight reels, social media can steal sleep through melatonin suppression, anxiety, and feelings of depression. Teens who use social media are more likely to fall asleep later and have trouble falling back to sleep when they wake up at night.(24)
Just like many of us adults, teens love screens! Some screen use can be beneficial: One study found that some screen use can promote improved problem-solving, memory, planning, and research ability. (25) Experts have also tied some social media use to more socialization, social support, and social connection. (25,26)
These benefits are tempered, though, by timing and amount of use. For example, late-night screens expose teenagers to blue light, which is no friend to sleep. “Blue light emitted [from screens] can interfere with melatonin production, making it difficult to fall asleep, and the content/scrolling itself can be fairly addictive and/or arousing,” Wu notes. Screen time can also include TV, movies, and video games. (27)
Too Much Caffeine
We can relate to this one — caffeinated drinks have grown in popularity among teens in recent years, and caffeine is a known enemy to sleep. Late-in-the-day caffeine consumption may be difficult to resist, but it can lead to difficulty drifting off, staying asleep, and can lead to overall sleep deprivation. (28)
Sometimes sleep eludes us all: the wind-down from a jam-packed day, that afternoon cup o’ Joe, or an impending test or event can keep sleep at bay. But lost sleep isn’t always situational — a sleep disorder may be the culprit. Sleep disorders can affect almost 20 percent of adolescents and cause chronic sleep deprivation and all the side effects that brings. Some sleep disorders in teens include: (5)
- Insomnia: a common sleep disorder that makes it hard to fall asleep and/or stay asleep.
- Narcolepsy: a disorder that includes falling asleep anytime, anywhere, and without warning.
- Obstructive sleep apnea: a medical condition that can pause your breathing on and off throughout the night, waking you up or making you snore.
- Restless leg syndrome: a disorder that causes an uncontrollable need to move your limbs.
Mental Health Conditions
We mentioned earlier that poor sleep can lead to mental health issues, but this relationship goes both ways: Mental health issues can also cause disrupted sleep. (29,30) Luckily, the bidirectional nature of mental health and sleep means that if you treat one, the other often improves.
Teens with neurological disorders like attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, autism spectrum disorder, and learning disorders can experience more sleep woes than their peers. While up to 20 percent of adolescents experience sleep disorders, that number can get up to to 44 percent for teenagers with neurological disorders. (31) Fortunately, many of these disorders are treatable, and with treatment, sleep can fall in line.
How Teens Can Get Better Sleep
As with adults, the answer to better sleep for teens starts with good sleep hygiene. “Improve sleep hygiene [by] setting a cutoff time for caffeine around noon or in the early afternoon, limiting screens in the hour or so before bed, and [using] techniques to calm anxiety and stress before bed like listening to calming music, reading a book, or taking a bath,” Wu says. (5)
Some other options for better sleep include:
- Investing in comfortable bedding
- Maintaining a consistent sleep schedule
- Sleeping in a cool environment
- Using colored noise
In general, teens and parents may need to look at their schedule together and make some changes. “Better time management during the day might also be necessary to make sure homework gets done earlier in the day and doesn’t cut into sleep time,” Wu says. Consider taking a look at the amount of extracurricular activities or hours spent on screen time that may be cutting into your teen’s sleep schedule.
Helping Your Teen Prioritize Sleep
Teens may not always want to listen to parental advice, but you can still steer them in the right direction. “Focus on making sleep a priority,” says Seliber-Klein, who suggests the following actions to promote good sleep in teens:
- Avoid screens and scrolling on the phone after 9 o’clock.
- Ask your teen how they would like to schedule their after-school time between activities, screens, homework, and sleep.
- Discuss with a healthcare provider how important sleep is to physical goals, academic goals, and mood.
- Get bright early morning light shortly after awakening. Even 10 to 15 minutes is helpful to reset the body’s clock.
- Keep the same schedule on the weekends and weekdays. (Why are you laughing?)
- Work with the school board to lobby for later school start times for teens.
Parents can support their teens by encouraging and modeling good sleep habits, says Wu. He also encourages parents to advocate for later school start times where possible and to speak with their teen’s healthcare provider if sleep issues continue.
Why do teens go to sleep and wake up late?
Teenagers experience a biological shift when it comes to their circadian rhythm. They naturally fall into a later sleep-wake cycle, meaning melatonin is released later in the evening and drops later in the morning. (3,4)
How can lack of sleep cause anger and anxiety in teens?
When a teenager doesn’t get enough sleep, a part of their brain called the amygdala can’t work like it’s supposed to. The amygdala manages emotions, and when teens get poor sleep, it can cause an inappropriate response to events. (32,33)
How many teens have sleep apnea?
According to the American Heart Association, up to six percent of children and teenagers have sleep apnea, and sleep apnea is diagnosed in 30 to 60 percent of teens who meet obesity criteria. (34)
The Last Word From Sleepopolis
Teenagers need sleep, and quite a bit of it. It can feel overwhelming to try and change your family’s routine, but anything that promotes sleep in teens will be well worth the effort. You can start with small adjustments and build up to bigger ones. Keep your teen in the loop on decisions, and they may surprise you by making responsible choices. If nothing seems to work, feel free to reach out to your child’s healthcare provider, and they can help with next steps.
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