We Know the Pandemic Had a Catastrophic Effect on Teens — But What About Their Sleep Habits?

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The COVID-19 pandemic took its toll on every aspect of life all over the world, and teenagers didn’t escape the effects. School closings, lockdowns, sick friends and relatives…teens had to cope with a multitude of new routines and worries. Evidence shows this group experienced a hit to mental health and good sleep during the pandemic, and that these issues are yet to resolve. (1,2)

According to a comprehensive Sleepopolis survey, parents are more worried about their kids’ mental health than drug use, academic performance, relationships, and social media use combined. 

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Data/graphic: Sleepopolis

Mental health and sleep are closely linked, so it’s no surprise that these two bedfellows shared a downturn during the pandemic. (3) The Sleepopolis survey found 55 percent of parents reported their teenagers weren’t sleeping well. What’s keeping them up? Here’s what 18-21-year-olds answered when Sleepopolis asked:

  1. My future: 77.7 percent
  2. Money issues: 63.3 percent
  3. Friendships and relationships: 63.3 percent

Young adults are tired. Those who took our survey reported they have fallen asleep during class, while doing homework, or at work. They also say they’ve been too tired to:

  • Go to school or work (21.6 percent)
  • Finish homework on time (18.4 percent)
  • Hang out with friends (25 percent)

Adolescence marks a time of massive life adjustment, even without a global pandemic. Teens are changing physically, emotionally, and socially. Life for teens offers no shortage of high stress and erratic sleep, which puts them at higher risk of behavioral and health disorders. (4) In this article, we’ll take a look at teen mental health and sleep before and after COVID, and what they can do to improve both.

Pre-COVID Sleep and Mental Health

Before COVID, it wasn’t all rainbows and sunshine. Teens still coped with mental health concerns and sleep disturbances.

Sleep Pre-COVID

A 2018 study found between the ages of 12 to 14, teens got an average of 8.05 hours of sleep and between 15 and 18 years they got 7.4 hours on average. (1) This isn’t enough, according to the National Sleep Foundation, which recommends teenagers aged 14 to 17 get eight to 10 hours of sleep per night. (5)

One pre-COVID study review found that teens aged 12 to 18 years slept less than seven hours a night on school nights, and less than eight hours on weekends. They added a caveat that it’s hard to study teens who sleep enough because they’re so difficult to find. (6

Before the pandemic, social media and mobile device use were blamed for disrupting sleep patterns. (7) But mental health also played a part.

Mental Health Starting Line

Before 2020, adolescent mental health was already deteriorating. Experts reported between 10 and 20 percent of adolescents coped with mental health disorders just prior to the pandemic. (8)

Researchers studied why teen mental health was on the decline, and discovered these connections:

  • Lack of friends: more depression and less self-worth (8)
  • Social media: more anxiety and mood disorders, cyberbullying, addiction behaviors (9
  • Mobile phone use before sleep: more depression and anxiety (10)

One study found teens who slept 8.75 to nine hours per school night demonstrated the highest academic performance. But researchers discouraged limiting sleep for this purpose, as it could lead to a decline in mental health. (11)

What COVID Did to Teens’ Sleep and Psyche

As the pandemic ramped up in March 2020, teenagers’ lives were being upended around the world. “Sleep is related to mental health and routine, so something as deeply stressful and with such widespread effects as the pandemic has the potential to negatively impact sleep,” Dr. Rebekah Diamond, MD, professor of pediatrics at Columbia University and author of Parent Like A Pediatrician tells Sleepopolis. 

How COVID Transformed Teen Sleep

One study found teenage sleep quality worsened by 27 percent during the first wave. (12) However, some experts found teens got more sleep during lockdown. (13,14,15)

Researchers explained these positive changes could spring from lower academic pressure and less conflict with classmates. (13) Another study got similar results but found these sleep changes were only positive in teens, not children younger than 13. (15)

Another study confirmed these findings, reporting children and teens slept an average of 40 more minutes a night. These students slept longer, felt more awake during the day, and had fewer breathing problems while asleep. They also found kids were less resistant to bedtime but that they took longer to fall asleep. (14

Many of these studies showing improved sleep were done in the early days of lockdowns. But a later study notes the positive aspects of changes in sleep may have faded as the pandemic lingered. (16

A study published in 2021 found that teens and children reported problems with sleep at more than double the pre-pandemic rate. (1) A large study review found kids and teens complained of: (16

  • sleep disturbances (54 percent)
  • worse sleep quality (27 percent) 
  • getting less sleep than normal (16 percent) 

Teens had the most difficulty with falling asleep, waking through the night, and waking up exhausted. Many also reported nightmares. (13

The Pandemic Aged Teenage Brains

Quality sleep wasn’t the only COVID casualty for teens: their mental health was often stretched to its limit. “During the COVID-19 pandemic, I observed several mental health changes in pre-teen and teen patients, including increased anxiety, stress, and mood disturbances,” Stewart Parnacott, NP, certified nurse anesthetist and instructor at Baylor College of Medicine tells Sleepopolis. 

The pandemic aged teenagers faster than their pre-COVID peers, according to one study. Teens who lived through the pandemic had noticeable brain differences, with anatomical features more like older adults. (13

During and after the pandemic, many teenagers experienced more depression and anxiety, and lower life satisfaction. However, some studies report no mental health changes during the pandemic. Still others reported less anxiety, depression, and substance abuse. (2)

The reasons for these inconsistent results remain a mystery, but experts suggest these factors could play a part: (2)

  • Context factors like parental job status
  • Differences in parent and teen survey answers
  • Guideline restrictions from country to country
  • Studies performed during different phases of the pandemic

Overall, though, mental health decline has been notable in teens. “The pandemic had (and continues to have) numerous mental health effects on the entire pediatric population, including teenagers,” Diamond says. “The stress of life changes, losing loved ones, and a constantly changing routine are just some of the reasons the past years have been so challenging for young people.” 

How the Pandemic Changed Teen Life

What was it about the pandemic that impacted teenagers’ sleep and mental health? Dr. Faisal Tai, MD, a psychiatrist and neurologist based in Houston, TX, and CEO of PsychPlus tells Sleepopolis he has seen more anxiety in his younger patients, and believes several reasons have contributed to this rise.

School Closures

With at-home learning came later alarm clocks and less morning hustle. Students found they could sleep more, but other factors began to hurt their sleep, such as missing friends and a lack of schedule. (17

During this time, teens demonstrated a correlation between lower motivation and worsened sleep. (4) For many, school closures meant fewer healthy habits. They exercised less, spent more time on screens, and slept erratically. All of these negatively affected both mental health and sleep. (12

Too Much Screen Time

“We’ve seen a real boost in screen use amongst teens and this has not been good for their mental health,” says Tai, who explains a mountain of research has clearly shown a connection between excessive screen use in young people and anxiety, stress, and depression. 

Sleepopolis asked parents how much time their youngest child spent online each day. The majority answered 40.6 percent of their youngest spent 3-4 hours online per day, with 16.7 percent spending 5-6 hours, and 23.9 percent spending 1-2 hours online.

The majority of teens told Sleepopolis they checked social media right before falling asleep. A smaller but still significant percentage said they watched TV or movies or texted with friends before nodding off.


Our experts found that isolation heavily affected teen mental health during the pandemic. “Loss of school and socialization compounded with so many other downstream pandemic effects…led to increased mental health issues,” Diamond says. 

Teens experienced mental health difficulties because they weren’t able to interact with their friends, agrees Tai. Because of their bidirectional relationship, poor sleep can quickly follow declining mental health. (18

Disruption of Daily Routines

With nowhere to be, many families fell into a routine-less existence. The lack of a consistent schedule was tough on everybody including teens, and made getting quality sleep a struggle, Tai says.

One major aspect of sleep hygiene is keeping a consistent sleep schedule, and the lockdown threw that right out the window. One study found teens fell asleep later, woke up later, and took more naps throughout the day during lockdown. While this may sound ideal to some, these fluctuating sleeping times can throw off your body’s natural clock, or circadian rhythm. An out-of-sync circadian rhythm can quickly cause poor sleep. (2)

Less Physical Activity

When teens stay active, they sleep longer and better, according to experts. (19,20,21) When schools closed, kids didn’t have to spend time outside in physical education classes or extra-curricular activities. 

Instead of staying active at home, many teens turned listless, preferring to stay on their sofa or bed. As they moved less, their risk for mental health symptoms and poor sleep increased. (22


For some teens, school offered a much-needed reprieve from home life. Once some families were forced to stay home together, emotional and physical abuse by adults in the home began or increased, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). (23

A CDC survey reported that over half of high school students experienced emotional abuse by an adult in the home, and 11 percent reported physical abuse. (23) Abuse as a child often leads to mental illness. (24) Add that to general COVID-related anxiety, and good sleep won’t have much of a chance. (2)

Help Your Teen Improve Their Sleep

If you’ve made it this far, you’re probably ready to hear what you can do for your teen to give them the best sleep possible. Diamond encourages all parents to chat with their child’s healthcare provider with any concerns. But you can also try some things at home.

No Screens Before Bed

The blue light and stimulation from screens can make your teen take longer to fall asleep, and Tai recommends putting them away at least an hour before bed. “This is obviously not the easiest thing to accomplish but research shows us that having time before sleep without electronic screens improves the sleep quality that young people receive,” Tai says.

Keep a Consistent Sleep Schedule

“To help their teens sleep better, parents can encourage consistent sleep schedules, limit screen time before bedtime, create a relaxing bedtime routine, and promote physical activity during the day,” Parnacott says.

Pay Off Sleep Debt

When we don’t sleep enough, our body keeps track in the form of sleep debt. “Society rarely allows teens to sleep in as late as their bodies crave, but when sleeping in is possible and doesn’t interfere too much with activities and routine, it can be helpful to embrace it,” says Diamond.

Protect Their Mental Health

Teenagers don’t always know how to recognize or express their feelings and emotions. “Parents can support their teens by encouraging open conversations about their feelings and emotions and helping them access appropriate mental health resources if needed,” Parnacott says. 

Tai and Parnacott recommend these practical ways for your teen to give their mental health a boost:

  • Engaging in hobbies they enjoy
  • Healthy diet
  • Mindfulness practices
  • Not overdosing on screen time
  • Regular exercise
  • Spending social time with friends and relatives

“Parents can help them accomplish these things by speaking with them in a respectful manner, and not giving up when the going gets tough,” says Tai. 

Diamond encourages all parents to speak with their teen’s provider about nearby resources like mental health counseling. “Remember that these are very common issues and while stigma unfortunately persists, there’s no reason to shy away from seeking support,” she says.

Poor sleep can frustrate even the most responsible and happy teen. The COVID pandemic threw a wrench in the lives of most, and teens didn’t escape the fallout. Even if your teen copes with mental health problems and poor sleep, know you both have a path forward.

If you or anyone you know has thoughts of suicide, you can call 988 or visit 988lifeline.org for help 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

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Abby McCoy

Abby McCoy

Abby McCoy is an RN of 16 years who has worked with adults and pediatric patients encompassing trauma, orthopedics, home care, transplant, and case management. She has practiced nursing all over the world from San Fransisco, CA to Tharaka, Kenya. Abby loves spending time with her husband, four kids, and their cat named Cat.

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