We hear it all the time. Teens need more sleep. They burn the candle at both ends, with early start times for school followed by hours of after school activities and homework.

When I taught high school, I saw my students in first period at 7:45 a.m. and dismissed the last class 2:45 p.m. And guess what? These teens were exhausted at both ends of the day. They wanted coffee. Did you drink coffee in 10th grade?!

As adults, many of us empathize with the adolescent’s desire for more sleep. We’re tired, too. But do we really understand the unique problem teens face when it comes to their sleep deficits? Because in reality, the teen brain is very different from the adult brain. Which means that their sleep needs are very different too.

I wanted to find out for myself and my own two growing kids. What I did find was startling. Sarah Spinks, the producer of the Frontline documentary, Inside the Teenage Brain, said the topic of adolescents and sleep seemed to “hit a nerve”. Based on her research, I created this list of the five most common misconceptions about teens and sleep.

1. As kids get older, they need less sleep. According to Spinks, this is the biggest misconception. Ideally the average teen should be sleeping 9 1/2 hours per night. Yet, look at the typical adolescent day. Classes begin earlier than younger children’s, and their activities go much later into the evening.

2. If they’re tired, they’ll sleep. Not necessarily. Spinks looked at the research of Mary Carskadon (Brown) and Bill Dement (Stanford). They looked at what is called a “phase-delay” or the power of the biological clock to overtake the sleep-wakeful cycle found in younger children. “…the biological clock of pre-teens shifts forward, creating a “forbidden” zone for sleep around 9 or 10 p.m. It is propping them up just as they should be feeling sleepy.” In other words, they have a bounce around 9 or 10 pm making them think they should be fully awake when they really need to be winding down.

3. There’s no harm in being tired. Spinks puts the teenage sleep deficit in context. Many young people drive, and a sleepy driver is a less safe driver. And the New York Times reports that lack of sleep increases consumption of carbohydrates and calories and ages fat cells by 20 years, leading to weight gain. The physical dangers of sleep deprivation are real.

4. Keeping up academically requires late nights. Spinks looks at research by Dr. Robert Strickgold of Harvard University Medical School. His work indicates that it is during two phases of sleep that the brain distributes and reinforces lessons learned during the day. “What these studies show,” she writes of the research, “is that learning a new task, whether it is sports or music, will be greatly helped by getting a good night’s sleep and that students’ ability to remember things, be it a lesson on geometry or the causes of the Second World War, is mediated by sleep.” After a certain point, an hour of sleep is worth more than another hour of studying.

5. Being tired is a fact of life. This need not be true. We can make conscious choices to preserve sleep. Try a firm “lights out” time, put the breaks on unlimited activities; or be more honest with ourselves on how we want our children to be spending their time.

Certainly life can be complicated. Figuring out how to help teens get the sleep they need shouldn’t be.


Blog written by Sarah Maraniss Vander Schaaff, staff writer for Mindprint Learning. This blog was edited and updated on 5/5/2107.

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