Teenagers are famed for their sleeping habits, whether its sleeping in until midday, or being awake until the early hours of the morning. So how much sleep does a teenager need and why is the relationship between teens and sleep often such a big issue, especially during exam periods?
10am, Saturday morning, Easter holidays
A brave Dad somewhere risks a journey into the bedroom of his sleeping teenager.
‘You need to realise that this is really important. If you don’t get down to hard work right now your whole future is on the line. I know you are only 16 years old but you need to grow up fast.’
As the summer months loom ever closer it’s not just the air temperature that starts to rise. GCSEs and A level examinations are around the corner and young people and their parents are starting to feel the heat. In fact, that pressure is increasing. In the UK, the education system is forcing young people to make critical life choices, and perform at their best at an increasingly young age. GCSEs and A levels are now the only objective yardsticks by which universities can judge future offers, and grades in English and Maths GCSEs will dictate future job offers for those that don’t go onto higher education.
So the as the sun shines, and an amazingly powerful but still developing teenage brain struggles to explore and test its environment, we try to lock it up in dimly lit rooms with a mountain of text books and wonder why things might go wrong. Research by scientists like Sarah Blakemore Brown and many others has helped understand that different parts of the brain develop at different ages and that the last bits of the brain cortex to connect are the frontal and prefrontal areas, where insight, empathy and risk taking are controlled.
Remember this when you next find yourself asking how your very smart adolescent can do very stupid things in a very impulsive way!
12.30am, Saturday night, Easter holidays
A brave Mum somewhere risks a journey into the bedroom of her still awake teenager.
‘What are you doing? It’s too late! This is the most important year of your life! Don’t you know how vital sleep is for your body and brain? Go to sleep now!’
Factually Mum is quite right. The problem with her approach is the timing. Melatonin, is the hormone of darkness, which we produce in the evening, when light levels are low, helping us to fall asleep. Instead, a heated argument at 12.30am will increase levels of different stress hormones including cortisol and adrenaline, making falling asleep much harder.
Mary Carskadon, an eminent adolescent sleep researcher discusses the ‘perfect storm’ of different factors that reduce the amount of sleep for adolescents and cause so many problems.
One of these factors is a natural change in body rhythms towards a later bedtime in teenager years. For some young people it’s a gradual progression towards a bedtime one hour or so later, but for others it’s an inability to fall asleep until the early hours of the morning. Because morning start times don’t alter in most schools, the net effect is less time asleep.
Whilst there is increasing evidence about the role of sleep in helping learning, memory, mood and behaviour, we need to avoid focusing too much on the recommended sleep for teens and being ‘average’ as we know that there are huge individual differences and some of us just need more sleep than others. That being said, there are plenty of ways to encourage healthier sleep habits for teenagers without causing stress, especially during exams.
1.20 am, Saturday night, Easter holidays
A brave Dad somewhere risks a journey into the bedroom of his teenager, lit by a dim blue glow.
‘Get that phone off now. I’m confiscating it. I’m going to remove the plug sockets from your room and change the wi-fi password as well.’
Dad has a good point. It’s not just devices switched on, but even a device left by the side of the bed switched off that cause a problem. Whilst the blue light emitted from devices is the most powerful alerting signal, manufactures are finally offering ‘night modes’ with lower and more orange/red light to address the issue.
However, talk of colour shades becomes irrelevant when the device is buzzing with notifications all night long. In a recent study, parents estimated that more than two-thirds of older teens (15-17 year olds) leave an electronic device on while sleeping at night, with 43% reading or sending electronic text messages after initially falling asleep. Children who sometimes sleep with electronic devices switched on at night are estimated to sleep almost 1 hour less than children who never do so.
So how do we tackle this issue without causing more stress? Take a look at the tips below on how to try and ensure your teenager gets the recommended amount of sleep.
Three tips about Electronic Devices
- Begin with a positive daytime conversation. The amount of learning that can be achieved through news feeds, facebook groups, and school chat-rooms is likely far greater than parents and teachers realise. Online and app based revision resources are built on sound learning principles but aren’t intended for a small portable device, especially late at night.
- Set an example. If you respect your teenager’s intelligence, you should also follow the same rules and put your phone or tablet on night mode when it comes to bed.
- Devices out of bedrooms is ideal and safest, but if this isn’t possible or realistic, then they must be on airplane mode before bedtime. Even one notification after bedtime is too many.
Three Additions to every Exam Timetable
- Light is a powerful ‘sleep and mood’ drug. Check that your child’s revision timetable includes at least 30 minutes exposure to outside light, as close to waking up as possible. If the weather is really bad then the ‘SAD’ blue lights can be used instead, but they are probably not required during summer months.
- Check that your child’s revision timetable includes some exercise every day. Even 20 minutes of vigorous exercise can improve your child’s slow wave sleep which will allow better retention of facts they learnt during the day.
- Focus on the positives around sleep. Sell sleep as a unique ‘hack’ that can improve learning, memory and exams results, all without extra revision! Work backwards from wake-up times to calculate bedtimes, and remember sleep does not begin when people’s heads hit the pillow, allow 30 minutes for this. Each individual has different requirements when it comes to sleep, but this study includes a rough guide for the recommended amount of sleep for teenagers and children.
Three thoughts on reducing battles
- Try to be supportive, acknowledge pressure and avoid making rules late at night.
- For anxious teens that can’t switch off, speak to schools, consider mindfulness and other relaxation strategies. Please seek professional help if you are concerned about serious mood problems.
- Remember that even a small amount of extra sleep (40 minutes a night) will add up and make a difference to mood and performance. Keep goals realistic and gradual. ‘Let’s begin by aiming to give you the time for an extra 40 minutes of sleep a night for the next month and see how you feel.’