Study Finds a Way to Help Teenagers Get More Sleep

Adolescence is a truly special time period in everyone’s lives. It is a transition from a child to an adult, full of rapid changes in physical, cognitive, and emotional development. Sleep is essential for growth and development, and, therefore, sleep is key for the well-being of teenagers. Unfortunately, many teens do not get enough sleep, and many struggle to fall asleep quickly; we often hear parents complaining that “my teenager can’t sleep.”

Why is sleep particularly important for teens?

Sleep is one of the four pillars on which our overall health rests. Sleep is absolutely essential for the physical, mental, and cognitive health of every person, independent of age. Sleep is particularly important for teens because it plays a crucial role in their physical and mental development.

During sleep, the damage done to our body during the daytime is repaired. Muscles, bones, and all other physiological systems, such as cardiovascular and immune, are restored, and energy stores are refilled, which leads to improved physical health.

Adequate sleep is also crucial for optimal brain functioning, which is important for memory and learning, activities that hold such a big part in every teenager’s life. Especially important for teens, good quality sleep also plays a role in balancing hormones.

Additionally, sufficient sleep can improve mood, increase focus and concentration, and reduce stress levels. All of these are critical for teens who are navigating the challenges of adolescence.

New study findings

A recent study finds that there may be a way to help teenagers get the extra sleep they need on weeknights. The study found that using a combination of morning bright light therapy and evening time-management strategy could help shift teenagers' internal clocks, allowing them to fall asleep earlier.

Although preliminary, the study's findings suggest that light therapy is a promising intervention for sleep problems in teenagers. It's also non-invasive, relatively low-cost, and could be easily implemented at home.

How light therapy could help

The conflicting relationship between the shift in circadian rhythm that happens in adolescence and the need for an early night's sleep required for school schedules prompted researchers' interest in the potential benefits of light therapy. In the sleep study, they tested a 2-week intervention focusing on the circadian system, using light therapy and various behavioral measures. The aim was to help teenagers maintain a better nighttime routine and increase sleep duration on school nights.

The researchers recruited adolescents who typically had late bedtimes and less than seven hours of sleep each night. For two weeks, the participants followed their normal sleep patterns to establish a baseline. Then, the participants gradually advanced their week-night bedtime to an hour earlier than baseline during the first week and two hours earlier during the second week. They also received personalized time management plans — Sleep RouTeen — to help facilitate earlier bedtimes. On the second week, they received bright light therapy for 2.5 hours on two weekend mornings.

Bright light therapy, also known as phototherapy, is similar to sunlight. Exposing the eyes to intense but safe amounts of light for a specific and regular length of time may help reset the internal clock and shift the circadian rhythm. The therapy involves sitting in front of a light box for a predetermined amount of time.

The control group who didn't follow the same light therapy protocol slept as usual and had no evening time management plan. The weekday sleep onset time and duration were measured with sensors.

Ultimately, the researchers observed that the teenagers' bedtime shifted by 1.5 hours and total sleep time increased by an hour each night as a result of the intervention. Plus, the teens felt less tired, irritable, and worried and had improved concentration and alertness.

The authors noted that the participants with late circadian clocks shifted their sleep by up to two hours earlier. However, those with an earlier circadian clock didn't shift their bedtime but benefited from the behavioral support of time management to increase sleep duration.

Changing sleeping patterns

The research findings suggest that it's possible to change the sleep patterns of young adults with delayed bedtimes by manipulating their exposure to light and providing time management strategies.

One significant advantage of light therapy is that it's safe and easy to administer at home. There are various personal light therapy tools available. These include table-top light boxes that house several lighting tubes. They're popular because you only need to face the box, not look directly into the light, meaning you can do other activities during the session, like reading a book or working on a computer.

Alternatively, light visors, which are worn like a baseball cap, and lighted eyeglasses, which look like regular glasses but have small LED lights on the frames, are other options. However, while the market is brimming with different options of light therapy devices for home use, it may be worth discussing their use with a healthcare professional, especially if you have any underlying medical conditions, including those affecting your eyes.

How long should teens sleep?

Teenagers usually require less sleep than children but still should get more sleep than adults. The recommended amount of sleep for 14–16-year-old teenagers is 9–11 hours per night, and for 17–19-year-old teenagers 8–10 hours per night.

However, it is important to point out that sleep needs vary from person to person. This is partly due to genetics. Sleep needs also vary for the same person from one day to another, depending on daily physical and cognitive activity, health status, and sleep on previous nights.

It's important for teens to prioritize getting enough sleep each night to support their overall health and well-being.

Are teens sleeping enough?

Unfortunately, many teenagers are not getting enough sleep. For example, a 2009 National Sleep Foundation Poll reported that more than 87% of U.S. high school students obtain less than the recommended hours of sleep.

One of the most common causes for too little sleep in teenagers is the combination of their school schedule, namely early school start, and the fact that teen biological clocks are delayed.

During puberty, the circadian rhythm shifts, causing a delay in sleep hormone release, amongst other changes, which, in turn, delay the onset of sleepiness and a preference for later bedtimes.

Why do teens often have trouble sleeping?

Several reasons contribute to difficulty sleeping in teens, some of which are:

  • Changes in biological clocks. The circadian rhythm of teenagers shifts during puberty, making it difficult for them to fall asleep earlier in the evening.
  • Social and academic demands. Teens often have a lot going on in their lives, from homework and extracurricular activities to socializing with friends. This can make teens stay up late to finish homework or catch up with their friends.
  • Electronic devices. Teens often spend a lot of time using electronic devices, such as smartphones and computers. The use of technology before bed can disrupt sleep patterns and make it difficult to fall and stay asleep due to their stimulating effects and emitted blue light.
  • Stress and anxiety. Adolescence is a time of increased stress and anxiety due to academic and social pressure. Stress is one of the worst enemies of good sleep and can make it challenging for teens to relax and fall asleep.
  • Poor sleep hygiene. Poor sleep habits, such as consuming caffeine or napping late in the day, can negatively impact sleep. This often happens when teens don’t get enough sleep during the night and end up drinking too much coffee or napping in the daytime.
  • Sleep disorders in teens. Teens can also experience sleep disorders, such as insomnia, sleep apnea, restless legs syndrome, narcolepsy, or delayed sleep phase disorder that can interfere with their ability to fall asleep and stay asleep. If your teenager experiences continuous sleep problems for 1–3 months, consider contacting a medical doctor.

How to go to sleep faster as a teenager

Good news is that besides light therapy, teens can improve their sleeping patterns with good sleep hygiene practices:

How to go to sleep faster as a teenager

How can parents help teens get better sleep?

Firstly, it is very important that teenagers themselves try to take care of their sleep. Additionally, support from loved ones can do a lot of good. Parents can teach and educate their teenagers about the importance of sleep and good sleep habits and encourage their teenagers to keep up these habits.

It's important for parents to support their teens in developing healthy sleep habits, as adequate sleep is essential for their physical, mental, and emotional well-being. Remember that a good example can go far — make sure to prioritize sleep yourself as a parent and have good sleep hygiene. The best way to teach is by setting a good example.

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