An overview of why teens face unique sleep challenges and tips to help them sleep better
The teenage years are a formative period. The brain and body experience significant development, and the transition to adulthood brings important changes that affect emotions, personality, social and family life, and academics.
Sleep is essential during this time, working behind the scenes to allow teens to be at their best. Unfortunately, research indicates that many teens get far less sleep than they need.
Both the National Sleep Foundation and the American Academy of Sleep Medicine agree that teens need between 8 and 10 hours of sleep per night. Getting this recommended amount of sleep can help teens maintain their physical health, emotional well-being, and school performance.
At the same time, teens face numerous challenges to getting consistent, restorative sleep. Recognizing those challenges helps teens and their parents make a plan so that teens get the sleep they need.
Why Is Sleep Important For Teens?
Sleep is vital for people of any age. For teens, though, profound mental, physical, social, and emotional development requires quality sleep1.
Thinking and Academic Achievement
Sleep benefits the brain and promotes attention, memory, and analytical thought. It makes thinking sharper, recognizing the most important information to consolidate learning. Sleep also facilitates expansive thinking2 that can spur creativity3. Whether it’s studying for a test, learning an instrument, or acquiring job skills, sleep is essential for teens4.
Given the importance of sleep for brain function, it’s easy to see why teens who don’t get enough sleep tend to suffer from excessive drowsiness and lack of attention5 that can harm their academic performance6.
Most people have experienced how sleep can affect mood, causing irritability and exaggerated emotional reactions. Over time, the consequences can be even greater for teens who are adapting to more independence, responsibility, and new social relationships.
Prolonged sleep loss may negatively affect emotional development7, increasing risks for interpersonal conflict as well as more serious mental health problems8.
Mental health disorders like anxiety, depression, and bipolar disorder have routinely been linked to poor sleep9, and sleep deprivation in teens can increase the risk of suicide. Improving sleep in adolescents may play a role10 in preventing mental health disorders or reducing their symptoms.
Physical Health and Development
Sleep contributes to the effective function of virtually every system of the body. It empowers the immune system, helps regulate hormones, and enables muscle and tissue recovery.
Substantial physical development happens during adolescence and can be negatively affected by a lack of sleep. For example, researchers have found that adolescents who fail to get enough sleep have a troubling metabolic profile11 that may put them at higher risk of diabetes and long-term cardiovascular problems.
Decision-Making and Risky Behavior
Sleep deprivation can affect the development of the frontal lobe, a part of the brain that is critical to control impulsive behavior. Not surprisingly, numerous studies have found that teens who don’t get enough sleep are more likely to engage in high-risk behaviors12 like drunk driving, texting while driving, riding a bicycle without a helmet, and failing to use a seatbelt. Drug and alcohol use, smoking, risky sexual behavior, fighting, and carrying a weapon have also been identified as more likely in teens who get too little sleep13.
Behavioral problems can have widespread effects on a teenager’s life, harming their academic performance as well as their relationships with family and friends.
Accidents and Injuries
Insufficient sleep in teens can make them prone to accidental injury and even death. Of particular concern is an elevated risk of accidents14 as a result of drowsy driving. Studies have found that sleep deprivation can reduce reaction times with an effect similar to that of significant alcohol consumption15. In teens, the impact of drowsy driving can be amplified by a lack of driving experience and a higher rate of distracted driving16.