It’s Time to Fight the Teen Sleep Epidemic!

It’s about time we see the topic of teen sleep in the news and on the lips of our politicians! While there are numerous diverging points for and against California’s proposed legislation to shift high school start times later, there is no disputing we need to take a deeper look at the sleep-deprivation crisis facing our young people.

As a teacher, I would have conversations with parents about why their seven-year-old child needed at least 9 to 11 hours of sleep. Most parents were amenable to that message. However, we tend to forget how important sleep is for our brains and bodies as children become older. Teenagers need between 8 to 10 hours of sleep every night to maintain healthy body and brain health. But how many of them actually get this much sleep?

Teen Sleep Needs

According to the American Psychological Association, adolescents need significantly more sleep than adults, and in contrast receive dramatically less sleep than adults. Nowadays, our teens have their schedules more tightly governed by a phone app, schedule, or calendar than some adults do. Schools have early starts, and extracurricular or academic enrichment activities bookend already long days for teenagers.

Many teenagers try to evade the sleep sheriff by compensating for their average of around 5 to 6 hours of sleep on weeknights with “binge-sleeping” on the weekends. But even in this binge, they only get around 7 to 8 hours of sleep each night on weekends, which does not nearly make up for their sleep-deprived week. This form of sleep-rationing leads to poorer quality sleep overall and can exacerbate issues already caused by inadequate sleep.

The adolescent brain is raging with activity and has so much elasticity to grow and expand. Just like for babies, sleep provides the teenage brain with an opportunity to assimilate all of its “awake-activity” and helps with: memory-creation, increasing focus and concentration, and allowing the brain to reset. Not getting enough sleep leads to – you guessed right – the very opposite! Meager sleep has been linked to depression, anxiety, significant health issues, lack of alertness (think: driving, testing, applying for colleges, completing homework assignments, remembering homework assignments), heightened sensory sensitivities, and even attentional deficits.

Counting Sheep: Our Culture of Restlessness

In today’s world with constant stimulation, electronics galore, and more events on our calendars than hours in a day, we need to intentionally and almost rigorously guard our time to sleep. When I began working with students and training instructors at La Jolla Learning in the Executive Function  (EF) Coaching Program, it became very quickly apparent how little sleep many of our students were getting. Our instructors coach students on tips for a good night’s rest, such as, being prepared for the next day, practicing mindfulness, or having an intentional meditation/relaxation practice at the end of each day, avoiding blue light or excessive “screen-time” right before bed, and keeping a journal and writing before bed to quell restless minds.

In addition to these suggestions, what I really appreciate about our EF curriculum is that our instructors meticulously help students break apart each section of their day into hours (sometimes minutes!) to help them better plan and organize their time. We have tools to help our students plan how much time they need to allocate to essential tasks like, brushing their teeth, eating breakfast, going to an after-school activity, driving from school to home, and most essentially- sleep! I have witnessed first-hand the benefits of this program and healthy sleep on the ability of teenagers to bring their best and full-selves to their learning.

As I write this, I marvel at how much I use the very EF tools I learned in my training at La Jolla Learning (breaking my day into hours) to help me organize my day so I can get enough sleep at night. While it’s not easy for me to manage the demands of my day to allow for healthy sleep, our children are at an even greater disadvantage. It’s time we focus on lifestyle changes that can make way for healthy sleep habits our children can carry into their adult lives.

Please share your thoughts on teen sleep and shifting high school start times in the comments section below.

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