Sleep Underground
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How Much Sleep Do Teenagers Really Need?

Life is full of challenges when you’re a teen. In addition to heavy schoolwork, first heartbreaks, and self discovery, people are always giving them a hard time about sleeping too much, or sleeping too little, or sleeping too late. What gives?

Our teenage years are a period of unprecedented change, and sleep is more important — and complex — than ever. Let’s look at what sleep means for your teen and how to ensure they’re getting the sleep that they need.

How much sleep do teenagers need?

On average, most teenagers — referring to people between the ages of 12 and 18 — require 8-10 hours of sleep to function at their best, which is at least an hour more than older adults. Unfortunately, teenagers across the globe are chronically underslept. Studies show that at least 53% of teens are getting less than their required eight hours per night — although the reality is probably a lot higher. By not getting enough sleep in their formative years, teenagers are going to suffer long-term effects that seep into their adult health, relationships, and careers.

What causes sleep changes in teenagers?

A big part of the teenage sleep endemic comes from the fact that their bodies and sleep needs are different than that of older adults. A whole range of factors impact the shift in their sleep cycle, including physical and lifestyle changes. Let’s take a closer look.

Shifting internal rhythm

It can be frustrating for parents to see their teens staying up late and sleeping the day away. What they often don’t realise is that this happens because the circadian rhythm, or natural biological clock, leaps forward during our teenage years. It can vary from one person to another, but it generally means a difference of about two hours. This means that their bodies will start to wind down — and stay down — two hours later than the average adult’s. If you’re forcing your teen to get up and go to bed at the same time as you, you’re disrupting their body’s natural rhythm.

New responsibilities

As we move into our teen years we’re suddenly hit with a massive new wave of responsibility that we didn’t have before. Teenagers have to juggle school, schoolwork at home, first jobs, and social lives. Sometimes as adults, we forget how intense it can be and how impressive their balancing act is. With all of this being heaped upon their young shoulders, sleep suddenly drops drastically on their list of priorities.

Electronic devices

Today’s teens are more reliant on electronic devices, like phones and tablets, than ever before. And unlike with smaller children, simply trying to confiscate them isn’t as effective. The blue light emanating from our screens has a negative impact on our ability to fall asleep and the quality of our sleep. Teenagers often spend a lot of their evenings watching shows on their electronic devices, doing homework, or texting — sometimes even after they go to bed. This makes it harder for them to get a good night’s sleep.

Mental health disorders

As we move from our childhood into our teen years, mental health becomes more precarious than ever before. Due to the amount of stress and responsibility heaped on teens, in addition to more exposure to social media and developments in the brain, a huge amount of teenagers suffer from mental illnesses like depression and heightened anxiety. These disorders can have an adverse impact on their ability to get a good sleep.

Why is sleep for teenagers so important?

With sleep health becoming such a delicate balance during this stage of our lives, many aspects of our mental and physical waking life are affected. Let’s look at some of the areas that suffer due to poor sleep.

Academic performance 

One of the biggest priorities in a teenager’s life is grades, and unfortunately, it’s one of the biggest to be hit by chronic sleep-deprivation. Not getting enough sleep has a massive impact on our cognitive function, affecting our ability to think, understand, and remember. When teens don’t get enough sleep, they’ll find that not only do their grades suffer, but they’re not getting the same positive learning experience. Both at an internal and an external level, this can impact a teen’s career in the years to come.

Emotional well-being

Lack of sleep negatively impacts our emotional, mental, and spiritual well-being at any age; however, because of their heightened risk of depression and anxiety, teens can be particularly affected. When a teenager doesn’t sleep enough, or their sleep is constantly interrupted by stress or external factors, they can experience bad moods and excess negativity in their waking lives.

Safety from accidents

Unfortunately, chronic fatigue is one of the leading causes of harmful and even fatal accidents among teens. This might be while driving, but also in things like housework, after-school jobs, or even just crossing the road. When we don’t get enough sleep, it’s more difficult to be aware of the world around us and we don’t have the best control of our reactions and motor functions. This can lead to hazardous situations for teenagers.

Supported immune system

Getting a good night’s sleep helps strengthen our immune system and keeps us safe from bacteria and disease. When your teen suffers from prolonged sleep deprivation, it’s going to put them at a higher risk of getting sick — which, in turn, is going to negatively impact all of the other areas we looked at above: academic performance, emotional well-being, and safety.

Long-term health risks

If your teen’s sleep deprivation is a result of a consistent lifestyle, over time it can lead to some pretty serious health problems later in life. Poor sleep habits have been linked to a range of health problems such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, obesity, and high blood pressure. Not getting enough sleep isn’t just damaging your teen’s body in the here and now — it’s going to damage their body for a long time.

How to ensure your teen is getting the sleep they need

As you can see, getting enough sleep is essential to your teenager’s health, performance, well-being and future. We live in a world where good sleep health takes a backseat to other day-to-day priorities, and teenagers in particular often get blamed for what their body needs, rather than helped. Since these are the people that are going to be running the world very soon, it’s essential that we help them take care of themselves and give them a healthier future.

Start by communicating with your teen openly and respectfully. Instead of blaming them for staying up late and sleeping in — a not-so-proud parenting tradition of the ages — try explaining that you now understand why their body works like that, and that you want sleep to be a bigger priority in their lives. Together, you can work out how to make a positive change.

It’s very likely your teen doesn’t know the damage their electronic devices are inflicting on their sleeping life. Together you can look at blue light-filtering apps to help negate the effects, and suggest a device-free bedtime routine to help them wind down in a healthy way. Try getting them books from the library that they can enjoy reading just before bed, or suggest a creative activity such as journaling or drawing to get them into a peaceful, stress-free mindset.

You can also share some data with them on how good sleep impacts their grades. Since success at school is hugely important for many teens, showing them the hard facts about how taking steps to sleep better leads to success at school can help make it more of a priority. By having a clear, positive conversation, you can show your teen how getting a better, healthier sleep is the key to a better, healthier life.

Matt Pulnett
Matt Pulnett is an experienced sleep expert and mattress enthusiast who has been writing about the importance of sleep and the best sleep products for over 10 years. He is a recognized sleep expert and has been featured on many of the top websites and magazines devoted to sleep and mattresses.
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