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Australian Teens are Sleep Deprived; Here’s Why and What You Can Do

The teenage years are an exciting time as many changes take place. Adolescents grow from a child into a young adult, gain more independence, and often take on a much busier life. However, one important thing that falls to the wayside during these years is adequate amounts of sleep. It seems like less sleep is to be expected, but how much do teenagers need and what happens when they don’t get it?

Here’s what you need to know.

How much sleep do teenagers need?

According to the Victoria State Government, teenagers need nine to 10 hours of sleep per night, which is more than an adult or a child needs.

How much sleep are teens getting?

The Daily Telegraph interviewed sleep expert Dr. Teng who said that Australian teens are lucky to get six to seven hours of sleep per night. The Victorian State Government’s numbers supported that estimate.

So Australian teens are facing an estimated 3-hour sleep deficit per night, on average.

Causes of sleep deprivation in teenagers

While the way in which sleep regulation operates is not entirely understood, this study on adolescent sleep patterns by Carskadon MA, found that changes do occur within the bioregulatory system controlling sleep during the teenage years. These changes include a delayed sleep onset from a teen’s previous schedule, which means they won’t be able to fall asleep until later in the night.

This wouldn’t be problematic if they could sleep later in the morning, however school schedules typically require teenagers to wake up early, which doesn’t give them enough hours to sleep.

Take for example a highschool that starts class at 7:30 a.m. This would require the student to wake up around 6:30 a.m. to get ready which means they need to be asleep by 9:30 p.m. the night before. This isn’t commonly happening. According to the estimates above, that student would be falling asleep around 12:30 a.m.

We interviewed Dr. David Cunnington, Sleep Physician and Director at the Melbourne Sleep Disorders Centre and co-founder of SleepHub, who said “At the same stage of life that teens need more sleep, their lives are getting busier. They have increased study requirements, are beginning to have independent social lives, and have a number of other extra-curricular activities such as sports.” He adds, “Screen time can also make an impact on sleep.”

As Dr. Cunnington mentioned technology is also a factor. The Herald Sun quoted Dr. Chris Seton of the Woolcock Institute of Medical Research saying that 70% of Australian high school students are sleep deprived because of technology. More and more teenagers are using smartphones, tablets, televisions, and gaming consoles late into the night. The situation is reportedly made worse because 40% of students are self medicating with at least two energy drinks per day.

The Victorian State Government cites several similar causes to those found thus far as well as light exposure. If a teen’s room is not very dark when they are trying to go to sleep, it can delay the onset of tiredness. Furthermore, the mattress being slept on should also be considered. If a mattress is uncomfortable, it can lead to tossing and turning throughout the night which prevents quality sleep.

So there are several factors influencing the sleep habits of Australian teenagers both intrinsic and external. They do have biological clocks that are shifting which causes a later onset of sleepiness. However, the problem is made worse by factors such as using technology late into the night, consuming caffeine, sleeping on a poor-quality mattress, and keeping lights turned on late.

The effects of sleep deprivation on teens

What is the impact of the sleep deficit in teens? Unfortunately, it has a ripple effect that impacts many aspects of life.

A study on cognitive function after acute sleep restriction in teens found higher cognitive functions such as abstract thinking and verbal creativity were impaired after one night of restricted sleep. An additional study found that lower grades were correlated with less sleep. So sleep deficits will likely impact a teen’s ability to succeed in school.

Furthermore, the State of Victoria’s Department of Health and Human Services reports sleep deprivation has been found to cause concentration problems, drifting off, memory impairment, a shortened attention span, moodiness, aggression, depression, risky behaviour, and clumsiness.

Dr Cunnington summed up the effects saying, “Getting sufficient sleep is a key to health at all ages, but particularly for teens. The teenage years are a time of emotional development and risk taking, and lack of sleep makes emotions more unstable and can also lead to greater risk taking. Teenagers are also usually studying, either at school or tertiary study, and sleep is critical to learning and memory. Staying up late to study instead of sleep may make teenagers feel they have got enough work done, but without sleep they won't recall and understand what they have been studying as well.”

As you can likely imagine, this can greatly impact a teen’s daily life, performance, and overall health, so proper sleep needs to be a priority during these years.

What teenagers can do to improve sleep

What can teens and their parents do to promote adequate sleep? Here are some tips:

Limit caffeine intake several hours before bed

Limit, or preferably eliminate, the intake of caffeine. It will disrupt normal sleep cycles and the quality of sleep reached. If you do consume caffeine, try to do so in the morning so it is less likely to keep you up at night. Remember caffeine isn’t just found in coffee and energy drinks, it can also be in sodas, protein bars, chocolate, ice cream, and tea; just to name a few. You may also want to check for caffeine in the ingredients of any health food or energizing snacks you consume. Furthermore, be aware that some pain relief medication contain caffeine and even decaf coffee has a small amount that can still affect you.

Know your ideal bedtime

Be aware of what time a teen has to wake up and what bedtime is required to get adequate sleep. Make an effort to move closer to the ideal bed time. Dr. Cunnington advises “Recognise sleep as a priority, rather than an inconvenience, and allow adequate time for sleep through the school week.”

Sleep in when you can

Catch up on sleep on the days without morning scheduled activities. Dr. Cunnington mentioned, “It's helpful to allow time for catch up sleep on the weekend.” Also be cautious when planning early morning activities that will further shorten a teen’s sleeping hours.

Limit technology before bed

Limit technology use one to two hours before bedtime. This includes but is not limited to smartphones, video games, television, and tablets. The light from these devices and the stimulation delay the onset of sleep further.

Nap

Take afternoon naps. If a teen is exhausted when they get home from school, it can be helpful for them to take a 1-hour rest. However, be mindful that if a nap is too long it could make it harder to fall asleep at bed time. It depends on the teen and how sleep deprived they are. Experiment with afternoon naps to see if they help a teen feel better during the day as well as to ensure they don’t disrupt sleep at night.

While high school students have a small window for naps as their schooling days can go late into the afternoon, there’s often time for an hour or so of rest. When students reach the university level, class schedules may allow even more opportunities for squeezing in some afternoon down time.

Set up a bed time routine

Set up a relaxing bedtime routine and perform it every night. This could include taking a warm bath, drinking a caffeine-free calming tea like chamomile or ginger, and recreational reading.

Turn off the lights at bed time

Keep your room dark at bedtime as lights can disrupt your brain’s normal sleep-wake cycle. A common adversary to a dark bedroom is the television, however, it can also be lights outside your window that shine in. To help create a dark undisturbed sleeping environment, both an eye mask and black out curtains can be helpful.

Check the quality of your mattress

Ensure your mattress offers proper support and comfort, allowing for sound sleep without tossing or turning. Not only can the wrong mattress leave you struggling to get into a comfortable position, it can also cause soreness and pain due to the misalignment of the spine. This makes it even harder to fall asleep.

Mind your sleep rules on weekends, too

Staying up too late on weekends can make it harder to fall asleep on time on weeknights. Of course, there will be social events that run later into the night for teens and they won’t want to miss out. However, it’s important to find a balance. Don’t stay up late every weekend night, particularly if nothing is going on that night. If you do stay up late, focus on getting to bed early the next night to get back on your normal schedule.

If you are a teen, or a parent of a teen, sleep needs to be a priority. Humans need more sleep during their teenage years than during any other time in their lives. Unfortunately, without it, all other areas of waking life can eventually suffer. So take the time to analyse your current sleep habits, or that of your teen, and identify what steps you can take to encourage adequate rest. As a result, you or your teen will be better rested and equipped to give life 100% in all areas.

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