Important Sleep Solutions for Teens

“The bottom line is students are up too late and too long”

Katie Couric
Sep 19, 2019 · 8 min read
Students have about 8.75 hours in terms of time between lights-out and getting out the door in the morning.

SSleep is so important for our kids’ mental and physical health, but unfortunately the data shows that they’re just not getting the rest they need. The CDC reports that nearly 73% of U.S. high school students and almost 58% of middle-school students receive less than the recommended amount of nighttime sleep. But a new survey by Sleep Number in partnership with GenYOUth found that adding just a few simple steps into kids’ nighttime routines can make a big difference. Read my conversation below with GenYOUth CEO Alexis Glick and Kathy Higgins, CEO of Alliance for a Healthier Generation to find out more.

Katie Couric: It’s really disturbing to learn how sleep deprived our kids have become. Can you help us understand what factors could be contributing to this pretty massive sleep loss?

Alexis Glick, CEO, GenYOUth

Alexis Glick: In 2018, GenYOUth, home to the largest health and wellness program in schools in the nation, in partnership with Sleep Number and in counsel with Edelman Intelligence, conducted a national youth survey to gain perspective on teens and sleep. Like nutrition and physical activity, adequate sleep is vital to students’ health and well-being, and essential to learning. According to our survey results, 71% of middle and high school-aged students are getting less sleep on weekday nights than they need to perform at their best throughout the school day. This is in alignment with Centers for Disease Control (CDC) findings, which report that nearly 73% of U.S. high-school students get less than the recommended amount of nighttime sleep.

Although the distractions of screen-based media — TV, tablets, smartphones — are frequently cited as popular villains and contributors to widespread sleep deficiencies, what we found is that the sheer length of the student “workday” is the principal factor.

Students put in an 11.5-hour workday on average, including school, school-related activities, and homework. And that’s before doing any household chores or other tasks. Given their various responsibilities, in general students have about 8.75 hours as the best-case scenario in terms of time between lights-out and getting out the door in the morning. That makes it almost mathematically impossible for them (at least those who do not fall asleep immediately at night and/or who wash, dress, and have breakfast in the morning) to get the 8 hours or more of sleep they need. The bottom line is students are up too late and too long because their school days are elongated, and they have more work than they are equipped to manage.

Kathy Higgins, CEO, Alliance for a Healthier Generation

Kathy Higgins: There are many factors that keep youth from getting enough sleep — from the use of technology to extracurricular activities that demand more of their time. Research shows that it is critically important to put away electronics and prepare for bed at the same time, every night, even on the weekends. In absence of a bedtime routine, youth are more likely to experience fewer hours of consistent, quality sleep which affects their health and productivity the next day and over time.

What do we know about brain development during these middle and high school years? And why is sleep so integral to that development?

Alexis: For both boys and girls in middle and high school, although the brain may be as large as it will ever be, the human brain doesn’t finish developing and maturing until one’s mid- to late-20s. The front part of the brain, called the prefrontal cortex, is one of the last brain regions to mature. It is the area responsible for planning, prioritizing, and controlling impulses.

During sleep — which the National Sleep Foundation refers to as “food for the brain” — one of the most important things that happens is rejuvenation of neurons, which are the essential building blocks of the brain. At no time is this rejuvenation more important than adolescence, according to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH).

What are the three key elements that the Sleep Number study found to helps kids’ overall sleep health?
Alexis
: Sleep Number’s eight-week 2019 study of 50 middle and high school students revealed that three key elements rose above the rest to improve the teens’ sleep quality:

  1. Practicing a consistent sleep schedule — Setting and sticking to a consistent sleep schedule, which includes committing to going to bed and waking up at the same time every day, even on the weekends. Going to bed/waking up within a half-hour of your target time also counts as a success.
  2. Creating a relaxing bedtime routine — Creating a nightly routine at least twenty minutes (and up to an hour) before bed to prepare the body for sleep and signals to the mind that sleep is coming soon. This could include anything from picking out an outfit for the next day, listening to relaxing music, or journaling about the day.
  3. Getting the right type of light exposure — Avoiding screen use one hour before bed and getting at least 15 minutes of bright light first thing in the morning.

Which of these elements proved most effective in improving the sleep of your subjects?
Alexis:
With the support of Sleep Number, at GenYOUth’s annual Fuel Up to Play 60 Student Ambassador Summit this summer, over 250 students learned about the importance of sleep to their health and academics, obtained tips to improve the quality of their sleep, and kept sleep diaries to track what worked for them. Because GenYOUth is all about student empowerment and “the youth voice,” here’s what students themselves named as techniques for helping them to improve the quality of their sleep:

  • Picking out clothes and attire for the next day the night before.
  • Listening to calming music before going to bed.
  • Eliminating bright lights and screen time before bed.
  • Deep-breathing exercises for relaxation and to clear the mind.
  • Turning off the phone 20 minutes or more before turning in.
  • A hot shower before bed rather than in the morning.
  • Making their bed each morning and clearing off desk, to feel calmer.
  • Writing in a journal at night.

Kathy: Both creating a bedtime routine and practicing a consistent sleep schedule seemed to prove nearly equal in how they affected the sleep of teens who participated in the study. Teens did note that it was easy to create a bedtime routine and therefore wanted to continue the routine after the study concluded. With both activities, teens felt less stressed about the next day, which led to more hours of restful sleep.

You both work so closely with kids, parents and educators…did anything surprise you?

Alexis: One surprise was the direct effect of adequate sleep on mood. Participating teens incorporated at least two recommended daily activities into their routines to see how they impacted sleep quality and quantity. Creating a relaxing bedtime routine was the most successful daily activity change which resulted in 93% of participants reporting improved sleep, and 70% of participating teens reporting at least one positive mood change. Teens also reported that when they included next-day preparations in their bedtime routine, like picking out their clothes or reviewing the next day’s schedule, they felt less stressed and more prepared for the next day.

The GenYOUth/Sleep Number youth insights survey revealed other surprises. One is that sleep deficits are more serious among girls than boys, worse among high schoolers than middle schoolers, and more serious still among African Americans than Whites. A concerning 82% of racial minority teen girls are getting too little sleep. It remains unclear what is driving this fact, and it demands further research.

Another intriguing insight revealed in the survey is that it’s things that students HAVE TO DO, not things they CHOOSE to do, that’s keeping them up nights. The percentage of students who say they don’t get enough sleep because of things they HAVE TO DO (42%) is almost double the percentage of students who say it’s because of things they CHOOSE, or WANT, to do. In other words, it’s obligations that are the issue, not hobbies, distractions, friends, or recreation.

Yet another surprise is that students with higher grades are NOT getting less sleep per night, but instead MORE sleep than students with lower grades. And, perhaps gratifyingly, only 29% of students surveyed agreed with the statement that “it’s cool to stay up late.”

Kathy: Working at Healthier Generation this study is in line with what we have witnessed in communities across the country. Parents, guardians, and educators understand the importance of sleep and we have worked closely with Sleep Number to provide resources that can help kids and their families achieve healthier sleep. This study reaffirms that small changes can lead to major impact and we are thrilled to incorporate these insights into our work moving forward.

School is starting up again, which seems like a great time for kids to start routines for better sleep. What advice would you give to both kids and their parents so that they can get on the path to being more rested and ready to learn and grow?

Alexis: As a mother of four amazing school age children and the CEO of a health-and-wellness nonprofit dedicated to helping youth achieve healthy, high achieving futures, the focus of my work is empowering students to take charge of their health destiny. GenYOUth does this through a variety of initiatives that encourage kids to embrace the importance of improved nutrition and more opportunities for physical activity in the school environment — where they spend so much time. Quality sleep is a key element to this equation.

At back-to-school time, our kids are looking for guidance, help, and strategies to cope. As the caring adults in their lives, we should focus on two things:

(1) help make youth less busy while helping them manage their time better; and…

(2) teach them and help facilitate, good sleep hygiene — especially as they move from middle to high school age. In particular, the role of a regular routine, or ritual, when it comes to sleep is essential.

From the perspective of the school environment, parents can advocate in their schools and districts for later school start times; allow for a study hall period to get a head start on homework in school; give their children a “Pause for Play” in between homework assignments for better focus; and above all be cognizant of the pressure parents themselves put on their children to achieve.

And from the technology perspective, less time on social media is good, turning off all screens an hour before bed even better. With my kids when they are restless, we use an app called Calm where they can listen to the sound of rain or the ocean — sometimes the sounds of nature is a recipe for sleep success.

Kathy: What we have seen from our work, that this study reiterates, is that consistency is key. Summer break can be a challenging time to continue the routines and learning that kids have picked up during the school year. We know that by being consistent through the summer and school year, especially on weekends, kids can achieve more quality sleep — leading to an improvement in mood, more positive behavior, as well as better performance in the classroom and in life.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

This originally appeared in the September 19, 2019 edition of Katie Couric’s Wake-Up Call newsletter. Subscribe here.

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