It’s a classic battle – the teenager who wants to stay up late versus the parent who feels they should be in bed already. And of course, round two takes place the next morning when the definition of an acceptable waking up time is disputed.
The question is though, does it matter what time teenagers go to bed and get up? The short answer is yes, and increasingly research has shown that getting enough sleep as a teenager is vital for general well-being, academic performance and safety.
But research and medical evidence also suggest that this isn’t just about personal preference; changing sleep patterns are a natural part of growing-up.
A good way to think about this is from Professor Russell Foster at the University of Oxford.
He compares getting up at 7am for school for a teenager as equivalent to getting up at 5am for a 50 year old – an idea which very few people would enjoy!
Moreover, the evidence is building that teenagers’ sleep times are naturally different. Probably the most striking are the results of numerous trials with schools starting later in the morning, initially in the USA and now being tested in a number of schools in England.
In addition to the natural body changes, research has highlighted how social factors may also be playing a part. In this article I’ll be looking at the natural causes of sleep pattern changes in teenagers, the new evidence of the impact and how social changes are having an effect.
The biological explanation
Numerous studies have shown how the body clock alters as puberty begins and the hormonal changes that accompany it kick in – particularly melatonin.
The overall effect is that, on average, teenagers natural sleep cycle may be around two hours later than for adults. So going to sleep around or after midnight and waking up after 8am may seem perfectly normal to a teenager.
Some teenagers (as many as 7%) have the possibility of a get-out-of-jail-free card with the common diagnosis of Delayed Sleep Phase Syndrome.
This is a sleep disorder where your body clock changes and stops you feeling sleepy until late in the night. Then you might not sleep much when you do finally fall asleep, and so lie around half-asleep all morning.
However, regardless of the reason, teenagers still need a good spell of sleep. Mary Carskadon at Brown University in Providence has shown that teenagers still require around 8-9 hours sleep a night to remain alert and maintain academic performance.
Recent surveys in the UK suggest that many teenagers are often getting much less than this, and closer to 4-5 hours. It’s hardly surprising then that teachers report students falling asleep during class and there are concerns about academic performance.
So accepting nature and going to sleep late, but still getting up early for school or college is not the answer.
Can later morning starts compensate for teenage sleep patterns?
In an article I wrote about the impact of technology on sleep, I described how some schools and colleges were finding that a later start time had a positive impact on pupil’s performance.
This theory has again been examined in greater detail. In 2014 the University of Minnesota published a report based on a three year study covering 9,000 students in 8 public schools in the USA.
In essence, their findings showed that a later start time allowed students to get more sleep. That then resulted in significant improvements in general well-being, academic performance and markedly less car accidents.
Those getting less than 8 hours sleep per night also appeared to be more prone to symptoms of depression and were more reliant on stimulants, such as caffeine.
Many more schools and colleges in the USA and England are changing class start times to 8.30 or even later, and the results are very promising.
For example, a trial in a British school indicated that exam results for 15-16yr olds improved by 19% with a 10am start time for classes.
This theory seems to be gaining ground and in England a large scale research project to look at the impact of later start times has just started. It’s being run by the University of Oxford and aims to involve 32,000 students in 100 schools.
In an interview with the BBC, Professor of sleep medicine at Oxford University, Colin Espie said:
…Science is telling us, in fact there are developmental changes during the teenage years, which lead to them actually not being as tired as we think they ought to be at normal bedtime and still sleepy in the morning.
What we’re doing in the study is exploring the possibility that if we actually delay the school start time until 10am, instead of 9am or earlier, that additional hour taken on a daily dose over the course of a year will actually improve learning, performance, attainment and in the end school leaving qualifications.
If we adapt our system to the biological status of the young person, we might have more success than trying to fit them into our schedules.
Proof of the social reasons for teenage sleep patterns
As is often the case there are also alternative views on the reasons for sleep differences; or perhaps it’s actually a combination of nature and other factors.
David J. Maume, a professor of sociology at the University of Cincinnati, believes that social ties are more important than biology in influencing teen sleep behavior. In December 2013 he published his research explaining this theory in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior.
In the study researchers looked at the answers 974 young people gave to questions at different points in their lives between the ages of 12 and 15.
They found that at the age of 12 children slept on average for 9.2 hours on week nights, but by the age of 15 this had decreased to 7.8 hours. However, as mentioned above this figure may actually be even lower for many teenagers.
What they then found was that their social ties – at school, with friends and with their parents – appear to have a big influence on their quality of sleep.
More parental involvement can lead to better sleep
The researchers found that teenagers were getting better quality sleep if their parents were keeping a closer eye on them and their behavior.
This of course seems like common sense – if parents make the effort to ensure their children have stable sleep routines, then they should sleep more and better than if left completely to make up their own mind.
Professor Maume reminds us that teenagers are less likely to get into trouble, drink alcohol or take drugs if parents keep an eye on them. He also suggests that more parental involvement, or even counseling, would be helpful instead of doctors prescribing sleeping pills etc.
Too many teenagers take sleeping pills, and the promotion of research like this will hopefully encourage a few more families (and doctors) to question the wisdom of taking the easy option.
Feeling a part of school and having positive friends
Professor Maume also found that teenagers slept better if they felt included and a part of their school. The same was the case if they had positive, pro-social friends who cared about their academic life.
He suggests that pro-social people tend to care more about their health, and so care about getting enough sleep so they feel rested and can concentrate at school the next day.
This again all sounds logical: presumably if a teenager feels excluded and has friends who don’t care about good grades, the chances will increase that they will place more value on their time outside of school than studying.
Could this then lead to more time staying up late doing things they find fun? Or could it be that when they feel unhappy or stressed at school they can’t sleep because they are worried about their school and social life?
Presumably, there are many different scenarios teenagers could find themselves in. It would be interesting to know how many teenagers don’t sleep well because of the choices they make about their night-life; and also how many want to sleep, but just can’t due to worry or stress.
The study also unearthed some other differences in teenage sleep patterns:
- That teenagers from some non-white backgrounds slept less than white adolescents. Apparently past research demonstrates that some non-white teenagers are more likely to be allowed to get up if they can’t sleep.
- That girls have more sleep problems than boys: not falling asleep; waking in the night; worrying about friends, school or family; having trouble waking up in the morning.
- That between the age of 12 and 15 teens watch more television. They then sleep longer, but have more sleep problems (contradictory as that sounds). Professor Maume says this was unexpected, but could be due to being allowed more TV time at the weekends.
- Those who play more computer games both sleep less and have more sleep problems.
Teenagers need parents to help control their sleep patterns
So the research is meant to be important because it offers an alternative to the medical model. And in the scientific world this is always useful, especially when medical models often result in medical solutions, such as sleeping pills.
Perhaps some parents won’t be too surprised by these findings. The less input you have in a teenager’s life, and the less control you have, the higher the chances of them not controlling themselves.
Add to that the influence of their social group and how well they get on in school, and you have a wide spectrum of potential problem scenarios waiting.
I think there’s another point worth raising though, which is just how hard it can be in the modern technological age for some teenagers to control themselves.
In a previous article I discussed how research has shown that technology can be partly blamed for falling academic achievement. And I talked about just how difficult it can be to stop certain activities, such as playing computer games or using social media like Facebook.
These activities can be addictive, and are often really important to children and teenagers. I think many teenagers know that they need to stop and go to bed, but find it hard to leave the digital world alone. So once again, some parental control is not just useful, but probably essential in some cases.
It may not always just be about control though, but also helping teenagers to do what many will secretly know and want to do anyway.
Not all teenagers will go completely off-the-rails if they don’t have positive influences; there are plenty of teenagers who have a difficult up-bringing but get through with remarkable self-discipline. And there are also those who could simply do with some support to do what they know is the right thing.
It’s up to individual parents to work out how to help their children get through this period of changing sleep patterns.
Hopefully you can find the right balance between knowing that their biology is working against ‘normal’ bed-times, but that with some stability and oversight the problem can be reduced and they can get more of the sleep they need.
What else can you do?
Changing sleep patterns may not strictly be a sleep disorder or normal sleep problem. However, if getting to sleep and staying asleep is an issue then there’s lots of useful sleep hygiene advice which you could try and see if any of the tips help.
What do you think?
If you’re a teenager, can you relate to the ideas in this article? And if you’re a parent, does any of it make sense to you based on your experiences with teenage children? Feel free to leave a comment below.