A Sleep Researcher Explains Why Teen Sleep Needs a Societal Conversation
Adolescents as young as 11 are reporting significant daytime sleepiness
The amount of sleep that teenagers should be getting each night hovers around nine hours per night. World Sleep Society breaks it down by age, stating 10–11 hours are needed for the younger span of 11- or 12-year-olds with the hours dropping slightly to 8.5–9.5 hours per night for 12- to 18-year-olds. But what are the factors keeping adolescents from maintaining those hours?
Amy R. Wolfson, PhD has been studying sleep for over 30 years, specifically child and adolescent sleep. In addition to her co-edited book on the topic (The Oxford Handbook of Infant, Child, and Adolescent Sleep and Behavior), Wolfson was awarded a six-year $1.1 million grant from the National Institutes of Health for a groundbreaking study known as the Young Adolescent Sleep-Smart Pacesetter Program. The project assessed the effectiveness of a social, learning-based, preventive intervention designed to promote healthy sleep and health practices in early adolescents, including other aspects of urban, middle school students’ sleep patterns, behavioral well-being, and academic performance.
“Researchers know adolescence is a pivotal time in developing life habits and health,” Dr. Wolfson explains. “Similarly, it’s also a prime time to intervene to inform and educate growing individuals about the importance of sleep. Yes, we understand the biological and circadian components that effect sleep, but what about other influences? I wanted to understand some of the other factors causing adolescents as young as age 11 to report daytime sleepiness and difficulties getting through the day.”
A Highlight from the Sleep-Smart Program Abstract
School schedules, extracurricular hours, and other environmental constraints are not beneficial to young adolescents’ sleep schedules and requirements. In fact, teenagers develop a sleep dept by getting a minimal amount of sleep on school nights and making up for this by sleeping extra on the weekends. As a result of this sleep dept, adolescents may be frequently absent or late for school, sleepy and moody during school hours, inattentive during class time, unable to do their best academically, and prone to accidents and injuries. Remarkably, despite the general agreement among health professionals that health habits need to be taught early in life, few schools include sleep hygiene as part of their health education curricula.
Researching Teen Sleep
Dr. Wolfson’s poignant question — what else is affecting young sleepers — first began her career in sleep. While in graduate school at Washington University in St. Louis, studying under the late professor and clinical psychologist Dr. Patricia Lacks (credited for innovations in CBT therapy in insomnia), Wolfson’s doctoral research thesis studied parental influences on infants’ sleep. At that time, Dr. Wolfson was not married and did not have any children of her own, yet her curiosity led her down the pediatric sleep path. In her decades studying the topic, she’s been pleasantly surprised along the way. “Twenty years ago, I never would have predicted state-level and school district conversations about changing school start times based on evidence from our sleep research. It is encouraging,” Wolfson states.
School start times being moved later to accommodate a healthier teen sleep schedule has been studied by Wolfson and her peers for years. “In one study I’m collaborating on with Dr. Mary Carskadon of Brown Medical School,” Dr. Wolfson explains, “500 students were studied from high school through their first semester of college to assess sleep patterns and what we call ‘social jet lag.’ The findings, presented in June 2018, support the theory that when given the chance to set one’s own school schedule, adolescents and emerging adults select a schedule that better matches their personal circadian phase and biological clock. They are selecting later times, starting their day later and experiencing less daytime sleepiness.”
The Impact of Lack of Sleep
From the sum of Dr. Wolfson’s studies and findings, the conclusion is clear — adolescent sleep needs to be a societal discussion. Sociocultural factors such as school schedules, socioeconomic status, extracurricular activities and environmental constraints are affecting the ways and amounts of sleep adolescents are getting. In turn, inadequate and irregular sleep negatively impact cognitive function, academic performance, health, social connections and more. “There needs to be a conversation about teen sleep,” Dr. Wolfson opines. “We know the results of poor sleep on developing individuals, now we must take action. Bettering adolescents’ sleep behaviors will have positive implications for weight, the immune system, the number of drowsy-driving accidents — the list goes on. Society needs to place the same level of importance on sleep as it does on healthy eating and exercise.”
Families can assist in the global conversation by modeling and teaching their teens the positive impact that ‘choosing sleep’ can have, as well as explaining the consequences of routinely choosing activities over getting a full night’s sleep. Statistics on the consequences of sleep deprivation are available under the primary talking points of World Sleep Society’s annual awareness day, World Sleep Day.
Dr. Wolfson’s future research will center around caffeine intake in adolescents and the potential long-term implications of developing healthy sleep-wake patterns. She and her husband, a fellow academic, have learned to prioritize regularly sleeping 7–8 hours per night.
The professional highlighted above represents the many leaders belonging to World Sleep Society’s membership, committed to advancing sleep medicine and research worldwide. Sleep is one of the three pillars of good health, along with a balanced diet and regular exercise. To learn more about World Sleep Society and its biennial sleep congress, visit worldsleepsociety.org. #WorldSleep2019 #WorldSleepDay