By: Lonna Hays, Manager

Lonna Hays is a Manager at ICF, where she currently works with the Office of Adolescent Health’s Think, Act, Grow® initiative — a national call to action in support of America’s 42 million adolescents. Her background includes work on sexual and reproductive health and rights, as well as fostering healthy family relationships.

 

The views expressed in In Focus are exclusively those of the individual authors and do not necessarily reflect official positions of their employers or clients. References to materials or services in the public domain do not imply endorsement from those entities.

 


 

The teenage years can become a perfect storm of sleep deprivation. Teens need more sleep than they did at age 10, but parents have less control over their sleep habits. Additionally, a natural biological shift in circadian rhythm in adolescence changes sleep patterns to prefer later to bed and later to rise—but most high schools still start early in the morning. Add in the pressures of teenage life, maintaining good grades, a social life, and a part time job, and it is no surprise that 68.4 percent of high school students report sleeping 7 hours or less on school nights. Even more concerning, youth of color and low income youth are especially at risk of inadequate sleep and its consequences.

While the evidence is clear that teens need 9 to 9.5 hours of sleep per night, external stressors, trauma, and environmental challenges can hinder good sleep habits, with evidence suggesting that race and socioeconomic factors play in a role in sleep deprivation. Another prevalent danger is for teen drivers, with over 35% of deaths and 73% of injuries in teens related to car accidents. The timing of these accidents is also very telling, with high rates of drowsy driving occurring in the midafternoon. Other concerns related to even mild sleep deprivation include increased rates of depression, learning challenges, academic performance, weight gain, and greater likelihood of engaging in risky behaviors such as drugs and alcohol.

While the need for more sleep is very clear, actually getting teens the sleep they need presents a much larger challenge. Additionally, there are some promising practices that youth serving professionals can attempt to encourage good sleep habits.

  1. Give the teen ownership. Talk to teens about how they could improve their sleep patterns to help them feel in control. Discussing their pressures, priorities, and the natural consequences of lack of sleep give them incentive and let them take the lead in developing a schedule that works for them and provides adequate time for sleep. Giving them more responsibility, such as more driving privileges, when they make good sleep decisions further incentivizes good habits.
  2. Advocate for later high school start times. Many communities and youth serving professionals have organized efforts to delay school start times in the later grades because a school start time later than 8:30am works with, rather than against, the natural circadian rhythm of adolescents. Research shows that later school start times increase sleep in teens. The teens still go to bed at the same time, but get up an hour later. Additionally, car accident rates decreased by 5% with just a 60 minute later start time.
  3. Focus on sleep. When working with youth and their families, youth serving professionals should ask questions about sleep patterns and any issues, such as night terrors. Emphasizing the importance of sleep, especially in adolescence, and its impact on health is vital. Parents can be encouraged to model good sleep habits, such as no electronics/screens in the bedroom, relaxing bedtime routines, limiting caffeine later in the day, and maintaining regular sleep schedules. Professionals can also refer to counseling and other services to address external factors affecting sleep patterns.

Asking the right questions, monitoring adolescents for signs of sleepiness, and coaching families on the benefits of good sleep are a few way youth-serving professionals can help conquer  adolescent sleep deprivation. Advocating for later school start times, as well as treating teens with respect, giving them agency, and listening to their thoughts can also go a long way in helping them get enough sleep to keep them safe and healthy.

Interested in reading more about teen health topics? Check out ICF’s work with the national call to action to improve adolescent health in the United States Adolescent Health: Think, Act, Grow® (TAG).