Generation Sleepless: Why Today’s Teenagers Are the Most Sleep-Deprived Group in Human History
Once you become a parent, sleep becomes an obsession. For the first year or so, it’s all you talk about — how much your baby sleeps, how little you sleep, how much more sleep your co-parents get than you do, because a baby’s crying was designed by evolution to be absolutely not every adult is to be ignored – somehow failing to penetrate their sleep – and so on.
y by the time your child starts school most of us have figured out how to get our kids to sleep and as they approach puberty they pretty much put themselves to bed and we shift our focus to other things.
But it seems we shouldn’t. According to a new book by family therapists and sleep specialists Heather Turgeon and Julie Wright, today’s teenagers are “the most sleep-deprived group of all time in human history,” due to a perfect storm of heightened academic and social pressures and the proliferation of screens and social media.
Speaking on Zoom from New York and California respectively, Julie Wright and Heather Turgeon previously wrote The Happy Sleeper: The Science-Based Guide to Helping Your Baby Sleep Well – explain how this book came about.
“Julie and I have been working with families on sleep for many, many years,” says Turgeon. “And people come to us all the time with questions about babies’ and toddlers’ sleep. But what we really noticed from the research was that in any age group, teenagers are absolutely the ones who suffer the most. We tend to think of the sleep of babies and young children as very important, but we underestimate how important sleep is in the teenage brain.
“We’d argue that it’s just as important, or even more important, than young children’s sleep, but at the same time, teenagers sleep a lot less than any of us. For example, Youth Risk Behavior Analysis in the United States has shown a downward trend since the 1990s. And now only about 10 to 20 percent of teenagers in the United States get sound sleep. It’s pretty much the same everywhere in the world. It depends a bit on the country, but it’s been a downtrend for decades and has just reached crisis levels. We are at an acute point.”
According to the study, children ages two to six need 12 to 13 hours of sleep, children ages seven to eleven need 10 to 12 hours of sleep, and children ages 12 to 18 need nine to 10 hours of sleep to optimally sleep to function. Additionally, for reasons that are much debated but still unknown, as children approach puberty, they undergo physiological changes that change when they are ready to sleep.
“Around the age of 10 or 12, the brain clock is shifted back by about two hours, on average,” explains Wright. “So that means teenagers are legitimately tired about two hours later in the evening. And in the morning, two hours later, they also legitimately want to sleep in.
“And the other thing about teenagers is that it takes them nine to ten hours for their brain to remodel at its best because their brains go through so much remodeling. But instead, the average teenager sleeps about six and a half hours. And so they miss about two and a half hours of sleep every night. It then builds up. And then they have an enormous lack of sleep on the weekends. And they try to catch up on lost sleep over the weekend, leaving them jet lagged.”
Lack of sleep causes problems for everyone. But the impact on brain development can be disastrous. The book describes how the brain undergoes a massive and permanent restructuring during adolescence – the remodeling referred to by Wright – to strengthen neural pathways, particularly the prefrontal cortex, which is the center of decision-making, emotional regulation, empathy, and judgment is. Connections are made with the lower brain, the limbic system including the amygdala, which integrates the thinking and monitoring areas of the brain with the emotion and impulse centers, allowing teenagers to better organize, empathize and balance their feelings. All of this work takes place during sleep, raising the question of whether sleep deprivation during adolescence can permanently alter brain development.
And there are indications that this could be the case. What we do know for sure, however, is that mental health problems are increasing among young people, with no sign of a peak. And when it comes to the impact of sleep deprivation in 10- to 20-year-olds, the authors focus on the impact on mental health.
“The number one thing we’re looking at is mental health issues,” says Wright, “which, by no coincidence, have been increasing at the same time as sleep has been declining. And it makes perfect sense. The sleep-deprived brain just doesn’t function in the same way as a well-tuned brain. Often referred to as the executive function, our prefrontal cortex helps us make sense of things, reason, gain perspective, think before we act, regulate our emotions — this part of our brain is less active when we’re sleep deprived suffer, and the part of our brain that is more reactive and tends to form a more negative view is more active.
“So that’s one of the reasons teenagers really struggle with whatever’s on their plate. They’re already over-timed, they’re already academically overwhelmed. I don’t know how much homework Irish teenagers have, but in the US, with the advent of technology, the increase in mental health issues and the decline in sleep, so does the amount of homework.
“The mental health crisis is extremely worrying. And we can’t really tease out the underlying factors behind a teen’s mental health issues, whether it’s anxiety or depression or a combination of these, until we solve sleep because sleep is so fundamental. Sleep deprivation will worsen and make your symptoms appear even more severe. And we can’t really help them well until we let them sleep well.”
And how do we do that? The book is full of practical advice and tips, some of which you may have heard, others may not – it was new to me that LED lights in bedrooms were a no go – as well as some great parenting strategies to prevent sleep and to solve deficits.
The duo also emphasizes that restoring sleep is a family activity that requires all members to participate in the relaxation routine, which inevitably involves turning off devices. As adults, we need to lead by example and make sure our sleep routine is up to date. If you are raising children under the age of 10, it is recommended that you continue to actively participate in their bedtime.
Turgeon, who has a teenage son of her own, says: “Ever since they were babies, I’ve been working on sleep. So my kids have literally heard me talk about sleep as a family priority since they could speak. If you have younger children, we encourage you to start talking about sleep as a family priority early on, not just for them but for you too, so that it becomes that family value, almost where it is, okay, let’s see our day to actually prioritize sleep and talk about how our day will unfold and protect sleep.
What if that ship has sailed and you have a teenager who stays up all night and sleeps all day?
“If you’ve already lost that structure around bedtime,” says Wright, “it really helps a lot to start communicating effectively, really being a good listener, and being empathetic to the things in your life that are so important to you.” are that you can find something relevant to sleep. Whether it’s improved athletic performance or academic work, or perhaps looks or a desire to grow taller, you can find this way to connect it to sleep.
“But the ultimate goal is to really listen to them because you’re trying to help them find their own solutions rather than telling them what to do.”
“I think morning routines are very important,” Turgeon interjects. “I think not sleeping in late at the weekend is something very practical to start with. When teens are really struggling to sleep, we help families and teens understand that not sleeping on the weekend for more than an hour after your regular weekday wake time can really change things. And within an hour of waking up, be outside for five to ten minutes, even in winter. These are two practical steps that almost anyone can take that really help.”
Generation Sleepless: Why tweens and teens aren’t getting enough sleep and how we can help them is published by Scribe
https://www.independent.ie/life/family/parenting/generation-sleepless-why-todays-teens-are-the-most-sleep-deprived-group-in-human-history-41611964.html Generation Sleepless: Why Today’s Teenagers Are the Most Sleep-Deprived Group in Human History