If you are the parent of a teenage boy or girl, you may have noticed a later bedtime has become the norm. Two of the main reasons are a natural circadian shift and the abundance of interactive electronics. In fact, this problem is so important that I devoted a chapter in my book, Sleep Soundly Every Night, Feel Fantastic every Day, to this subject.
During adolescence, up to 10% will develop a circadian shift. It may result in a delay of as much as three hours in sleep and wake time. This is referred to in sleep medicine as Delayed Sleep Phase Syndrome. Thus, a 10 year old who has no trouble falling asleep at 9 PM and awakening at 7 AM may find that at the age of 14 they cannot fall asleep before midnight and need to sleep until 10 AM. Unfortunately, because of early school start times, they may be getting no more than five to six hours of actual sleep.
This problem falling asleep is compounded, and may be caused by the use of iPads, video games, cell phones, texting in bed, and television. All of these devices emit light in the blue spectrum. Blue light, because of its suppression of melatonin production, further inhibits the ability to fall asleep.
In a study published in the journal Pediatrics titled “The Great Sleep Recession: Changes in Sleep Duration Among U.S. Adolescents, 1991-2012”, the authors found that only 60% of teens were getting seven or more hours of sleep each night. That means that 40% of American teenagers are getting well below the eight to ten hours recently recommended by the National Sleep Foundation.
What are the consequences of this lack of sleep? They include physical effects such as obesity, metabolic syndrome, and lowered immunity, as well as an increased propensity to athletic injury. Psychologically, these teenagers are more prone to depression, anxiety disorders, and suicide. Cognitively, they have more trouble focusing, paying attention, and controlling impulses, and thus do poorly in school.
What can a parent do when confronted with this problem? The first measure is to educate your teenager about the importance of sleep with regards to their physical and psychological wellbeing. Another is to remove all blue light emitting electronic devices from the bedroom, starting with the television. Enforce earlier bedtimes and on weekends urge your teenager to stay on the same schedule. Have them expose themselves to bright light upon awakening. Light in the morning actually helps us to fall asleep earlier the next night.
If all else fails, see if you can get a later start time for classes at their school. In addition, you might want to talk to your health care provider about the use of low doses of melatonin one to two hours before the desired bedtime. It, along with early morning light therapy, has been shown in several studies to be quite effective in improving this disorder.
The bottom line is that the earlier this is recognized and addressed, the less likely it is to result in numerous troublesome consequences, many of which end up unnecessarily being treated with antidepressants, sleeping pills, and psychostimulants such as Ritalin. In reality, the answer to these problems was to get more sleep.