Why Are Teens So Sleep-Deprived?

Biology, technology and societal expectations, including homework and extracurriculars, together create a perfect storm for chronic sleep deprivation. The major contributors to adolescent sleep debt come down to these:

  • Biology: Along with the more obvious hormonal changes that transform your child into a teen are shifts in the production of melatonin, the sleep hormone. That is why your teenager actually seems more awake at midnight than at dinner, and left alone would probably sleep until ten or eleven. That is the normal circadian rhythm for 15- to 22-year-olds. The problem is compounded when adolescents try to make up for lost sleep on the weekends, sometimes sleeping upwards of 12 hours on Friday and Saturday nights, which only further disrupts their sleep cycle.
  • Technology: It’s not just that Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr and YouTube are distractions that keep kids up later, it’s the actual light coming off the electronic devices they’re exposed to, especially late at night. Electronics emit a glow called blue light that has a particular frequency. When it hits receptors in the eye, those receptors send a signal to the brain that suppresses the production of melatonin and keeps kids from feeling tired. And adolescents are low on melatonin and start producing it later to begin with.
  • Homework: Parents are torn between making kids go to bed and encouraging them to finish their work regardless of how long it takes. And for kids who are anxious about their homework, knowing that there may be a peer who stays up later or all night only adds to the anxiety, competitiveness and desire to stay awake. Add to this the stimulating blue light emitted by computers being used to study and write papers, and you’ve got a wide-awake kid.
  • Over-scheduling: We live in a culture that values activity over sleep. Teens are constantly being told that they have to be “well-rounded,” which means that the more they do, the better their college applications will look. For some kids, being involved in a lot of extracurricular activities may truly be a matter of pursuing a diversity of passions. But either way, sports, clubs, volunteering and after-school jobs on top of classes and homework leave an ever-narrowing window for sleep.
  • Early school start times: Very early high school start times are common, despite the fact that they run completely counter to the biological needs of adolescents. Multiple studies have shown that high school students aren’t functional before 9am.