Teen Sleep: Powering Down for the Night

It was late on a sizzling hot summer afternoon in the otherwise comfortable Los Angeles suburb. The excessive heat was taking its toll on the city's struggling transformers and the sweltering residents. A dozen or so teenage boys, enjoying the last days of freedom before their return to the classrooms, had been roaming the neighborhood since they woke at their customary crack of noon. The boys occupied themselves with their electronic toys, playing Wii at one air-conditioned house, checking MySpace at another, swarming and retreating as the afternoon wore on. They had just descended on the house with Guitar Hero II, learning the licks while sipping cold lemonade. Without warning, the Xbox 360 gave a final mournful twang and the power shut off.

With no electricity for the computer, the Xbox or air conditioning, the boys flopped into the pool to cool off and swam until sunlight finally surrendered to darkness. After a candlelit dinner, they played cards for a while. “Another round?” asked one of the boys. “Nah, I’m done. Since the power’s still off, I might as well go to bed early for once.” The others chuckled and agreed, dispersing into the darkness, heading for home and bed.

Thanks to the power blackout, these teens may have gotten just a little more quality sleep than usual that night. Habitual late bedtimes and sleep disrupted with computers, television and other electronic devices are growing problems—and they’re not limited to American teens.

According to the British Sleep Council, about 30 percent of British teens regularly get less than the recommended amount of sleep each night, and the Sleep Council lays the blame for the sleep shortfall squarely on the proliferation of electronic gadgets found in the bedrooms of most adolescents. Forty percent of the 1,000 surveyed claim to generally feel tired. The report states that almost 25 percent of teens admitted to falling asleep with the television or music on more than once a week. Interestingly, the research was done via an online survey.

Similar results from a yearlong study of Belgian teens were published in the September 1, 2007, issue of the journal Sleep. The researchers reported that “35 percent of the cases of being very tired were attributed to the use of the mobile [cell] phone” after “lights out.” They concluded, “There is no safe dose and no safe time for using the mobile phone for text messaging or for calling after lights out.”

Their implied recommendation may seem harsh to some, yet lack of sleep is known to affect the safety of teens in important ways. Lower grades, acne, illness, disciplinary problems, obesity and subsequent related diseases, fatal traffic accidents, and even psychopathies (including attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and depression) have all been linked to sleep shortfalls by researchers around the globe. These international experts all come to the same conclusion: our teens are deprived of the sleep they need.

The U.S. National Sleep Foundation’s 2006 Sleep in America report focused on the sleep habits of teens living in the United States. Their findings show that although teens need more sleep than adults (teens need more than 9 hours of sleep per night), they are getting less and less sleep as they get older, with 72 percent of 12th-grade adolescents admitting they do not get enough sleep to feel their best during the day. In fact, 54 percent of 12th graders report going to bed after 11 p.m. on school nights, and most are up past midnight on nonschool nights.

These circumstances are clearly exacerbated by ever-present electronic gadgets, but there are other factors as well. Late afternoons and evenings are often filled with homework, sports, employment and social activities, and teens are increasingly turning to caffeinated beverages to keep themselves going. Sleep in America commented on the teens’ caffeine consumption: “Adolescents who drink two or more cups/cans of caffeinated beverages each day are more likely to get an insufficient amount of sleep on school nights, think they have a sleep problem, and have sleep problems related to sleepiness than those who drink one cup/can or less.”

With or without the jolt of coffee or cola, the body’s circadian rhythms naturally shift by this age, making it difficult to get to sleep before 11 p.m. The majority of teens are not able to sleep long enough in the morning to make up for the lost hours of sleep the night before. Most high school students are up by 6 or 7 a.m. for more sports practices, extracurricular activities or even work before school.

Some U.S. school districts have experimented with later start times, usually with favorable results. Students report being able to concentrate better in class, while teachers report less disruption and drowsiness on the part of students.

Although starting school later is not always a viable option, there are other things that parents or caregivers can do to help their teens get more quality sleep. Of primary importance is being a good example. Parents must first set priorities and demonstrate balance themselves. Mindlessly watching that late-night show or Internet surfing into the wee hours not only is futile but sends the wrong message—one that teens are sure to emulate.

After taking care to set the proper example, parents and caregivers need to work with teens to help them get the rest they desperately need. Educating teens about the importance of sleep in a balanced life is essential. Eliminating unnecessary time-consuming activities may be difficult but is essential to the goal. Consumption of caffeinated beverages should be restricted to morning and early afternoon hours if allowed at all. Limiting physical stimulation from exercise and mental stimulation from homework or electronic gadgetry in the last hour before bedtime is certainly helpful in a quest for better rest, and it is patently obvious that texting or calling after bedtime is going to disrupt sleep.

The electricity-deprived boys in Los Angeles may have gotten a bit more sleep that night, but longing for the dark ages is not the answer. The problem does not lie with electronic gadgetry but with the choices made about our tools and our time. Long before the invention of television, computers and mobile technology, Solomon wrote that staying up too late and rising too early was “vanity,” or empty and worthless in the end—words of wisdom which certainly ring true in this 21st century.