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Back-to-School: Teens Need Their Sleep

  • Jim Liebelt Contributor
  • 2009 24 Aug
Back-to-School: Teens Need Their Sleep


As summer wanes, the annual focus on back-to-school is again in high gear. At this time of year, we hear a lot about back-to-school issues: where to hit the best sales for good deals on supplies and clothing, and lots of tips for parents about helping kids make the transition back into a new school year. All of this focus is well and good. But, an important factor often flies below the radar of most parent and student back-to-school checklists: the need for teens to get adequate sleep and adjust their sleep cycles to fit the school year schedule.

Summer is a season when teens often experience more freedom in their daily schedules. As such, they often regularly stay up later and sleep later than they do during the school year. The reality is that during summer vacation, many teens actually get more sleep (a good thing!) than they do during the school year. But, because kids have gotten out of their typical school routines, it becomes as if they are living their lives in another time zone. Getting kids back onto a schedule that matches the earlier time that the school day starts, while including adequate sleep can be challenging.

Parents shouldn’t wait until the new school year starts to begin helping their teens make the transition back to SST (Standard School Time). Why? Because if teens are not already adjusted before the school year starts, it’s pretty likely that they won’t begin with the focus and energy they need to get the school year off to a good start. Adequate sleep is often sacrificed. “Re-establishing a regular school-time sleep schedule can take several weeks. So, it’s important to start resetting that internal clock early,” said Kris Sekar, medical director of the pediatric sleep lab at The Children’s Hospital at Oklahoma University Medical Center. “A series of small adjustments in the sleep and wake-up times is best and should start right away.”*

According to Sekar, teen physiology is wired differently than adults, with teens’ sleep cycles normally occurring later. In other words, it’s more normal for kids to go to bed later and sleep later. When the more natural teen sleeping habit forms during the summer, making the change to getting up early for school requires some effort and time to reprogram their sleep cycles.

Teens are already fairly notorious for not getting the sleep they need. And no doubt, they’ll want to get every last drop out of their remaining summer freedom. So, utilizing your parental authority to begin the transition from summer vacation to the new school year is bound to be easier said than done. Still, parents must have the big picture in mind. The well being of your kids—physically, intellectually, emotionally, and yes, even spiritually—is important! So, as the new school year approaches this year, you just might want to bring the “teen sleep factor” into view and make it a goal to get your teen off to a great start.

For those parents who might be unfamiliar with the importance of teens and sleep, here are some brief summaries of current research that might just come in handy when “wrestling the bear” of making the effort with your kids to help see that they are getting adequate sleep:

Experts recommend adolescents get between eight and nine hours of sleep per night.

Reduced sleep on school nights begins in early adolescence. One study, authored by Stephanie Apollon, Amy Wolfson and colleagues of the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass., found that 37 percent of the seventh graders were falling asleep after 11 p.m. with 66 percent getting less than nine hours on school nights. Source: Science Daily 

Many teens aren’t getting adequate sleep. In a Drexel University study, researchers polled teens and found that fifteen percent said they only slept three to five hours per night, while 62 percent reported getting six to eight hours nightly. Just 20 percent slept 8 or more hours each night. Source: U.S. News & World Report.

One-third of teens report falling asleep in school—twice a day. In the Drexel University study, researchers found that one-third of teens polled reported falling asleep in school at least twice each day. Several students even confessed to falling asleep at the wheel while driving. Source: U.S. News & World Report.

Technology and caffeine are keeping teens awake.  Just one in five teens is getting the recommended eight hours of sleep each night. The rest may be texting the night away with the help of highly-caffeinated energy drinks, according to research. "We found that as these adolescents multitask into the night, they also caffeinate, and it affects their sleep dramatically," said Christina Calamaro, the Drexel University’s study lead author. While sleep duration decreased, the amount of technology in adolescents' bedrooms increased. Almost all teens have at least one electronic device in their room -- TV, cell phone, computer, telephone or music device. The average sixth-grader has two of these devices in the bedroom, according to the study. By 12th grade, there are often four electronic devices in the bedroom. Source: U.S. News & World Report.

Poor sleep is linked to high blood pressure in teens. A study found that teens who don't get enough sleep or have poor-quality sleep run the risk of elevated blood pressure. The study conducted by the University Hospitals Sleep Center at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland determined that 11 percent of teens studied slept less than 6.5 hours a night, and 26 percent had poor "sleep efficiency," with frequent awakenings at night. One of every seven teens in the study had either hypertension, or borderline high blood pressure called pre-hypertension. Teens with less than 85 percent sleep efficiency had nearly three times the odds of high blood pressure. Source: U.S. News & World Report 

Teens with later bedtimes are more likely to become depressed. Research presented at a national sleep conference indicated that middle- and high-schoolers whose parents don't require them to be in bed before midnight on school nights are 42% more likely to be depressed than teens whose parents require a 10 p.m. or earlier bedtime. And teens who are allowed to stay up late are 30% more likely to have had suicidal thoughts in the past year. Source: USA Today.

*Source: Ada Evening News (Oklahoma); 7/31/09

Jim is Senior Writer, Editor and Researcher for Azusa Pacific University's Center for Youth and Family. Jim has over 25 years of experience as a youth and family ministry specialist, most recently serving as Senior Editor of Publications for HomeWord. He has served over the years as a pastor, author, trainer, instructor and speaker. Jim is a contributing author of culture and parenting articles to