School may look a bit different these days, but there’s one constant parents will remember from pre-Covid days: the struggle to get your teen to sleep.
In fact, staying up late to see or talk with friends may be an even bigger problem now, as teens catch up on socializing. Then there are the typical distractions: Television, social media, video games and more. What’s a parent to do?
Rest easy, experts say. There are tried and true techniques that can put your child back on a regular sleep schedule, which will help improve their academic performance and mood.
‘Social jet lag’
Is your teen suffering from social jet lag? That wouldn’t mean they are behind on making friends or going to parties – in the sleep world, it’s a term for the disparity between the number of hours you sleep during the week compared to the weekend.
“Social jetlag occurs when people sleep later on the weekend than during the work or school week, and this leads to a delay in circadian timing,” said sleep specialist Kenneth Wright, a professor of integrative psychology at the University of Colorado in Boulder.
“Come Monday morning, their clock is several time zones later, leading to a type of ‘jet lag,’” Wright said.
Teens are especially prone to staying up much later on weekends and sleeping in. But their natural sleep rhythm often keeps them up later on weekdays, too.
Despite the overuse of screens and social media, it’s not entirely their fault. When children hit puberty, they are biologically programmed to stay up later, experts say. There could be an “evolutionary benefit” for this change to promote independence, one study said, “allowing young animals to occupy a distinct temporal niche from that of older, dominant individuals.”
What happens in the body
As a child nears puberty, levels of melatonin – the sleep hormone – begin to be secreted later in the day, moving his or her body clock from more of a “day lark” or morning type toward a “night owl” or evening type, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.
The pressure to fall asleep “accumulates more slowly” in the brain, which “consequently results in difficulty falling asleep at an earlier bedtime,” the AAP noted, resulting in as much as a two-hour shift in sleep/wake cycles in middle childhood.
“On a practical level, this research indicates that the average teenager in today’s society has difficulty falling asleep before 11:00 p.m. and is best suited to wake at 8:00 a.m. or later,” the AAP concluded.
The impact on health and safety
Teens ages 13 to 18 years old require between eight and 10 hours of sleep a day, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, to allow their bodies to repair, consolidate memories and stay healthy. Pre-teens need between nine and 12 hours a night, the CDC says.
Yet a 2015 CDC study found about 6 out of 10 middle school students (grades six through eight) did not get enough sleep on school nights, while about 7 out of 10 high school students (grades nine through 12) were sleep deprived.
Depriving teens of a full nine to 10 hours of sleep for just one night significantly slowed reaction and cognitive processing speed, while also reducing the teen’s ability to stay attentive, according to a 2014 study.
Other studies have shown a link between a decrease in sleep duration and lower academic achievement at the middle school, high school and college levels, as well as higher rates of absenteeism, tardiness and a decreased readiness to learn.
“Many studies have documented that the average adolescent in the United States is chronically sleep deprived and pathologically sleepy (i.e., regularly experiencing levels of sleepiness commensurate with those of patients with sleep disorders such as narcolepsy),” the AAP stated.
A constant diet of insufficient sleep increases the dangers of social jet lag, which include insomnia, early waking or excessive sleepiness, daytime fatigue, difficulty concentrating, constipation or diarrhea, and an overall feeling of not being well, the AAP said.
Previous studies on teen sleep found that fewer than eight hours a night was also associated with obesity, migraines, substance abuse, lack of exercise, sexual activity, feelings of depression and thoughts of suicide. Chronic sleep restriction also raises the risk of cardiovascular disease, metabolic dysfunction, type 2 diabetes, drowsy driving and more.
Social jet lag also sets up teens to engage in more risky behavior, such as drinking or texting while driving or not wearing a seat belt or helmet, according to studies conducted by the CDC.
What schools can do
Problems stemming from the teen sleep deficit are so bad that in 2014, the American Academy of Pediatrics issued a policy statement asking schools across the country to delay the start of middle and high school to no earlier than 8:30 a.m. The American Medical Association and the American Academy of Sleep Medicine have also put out statements calling for change.
Research shows it helps: One study found that tweens and teens slept an additional 29 to 45 minutes each night when their school district delayed start times. Middle schools in the two-year study delayed their start times by 40 to 60 minutes, while high schools started 70 minutes later, ensuring a start time of 8:30 a.m. or after.
When the Seattle school district included in the study moved the start time in middle and high schools from 7:50 a.m to 8:45 a.m. in 2016, they found students gained about 34 minutes of sleep a night, which resulted in a “4.5% increase in the median grades of the students and an improvement in attendance.”
Even though some schools are heeding that call, the advocacy group Start School Later says that more than 4 in 5 schools start classes earlier than the recommended time.
What parents can do
With the added pressures of homework, extracurricular activities and the lure of social media, it can be tough to help a teen get better sleep. Experts suggest talking to your teen about the biological changes to their sleep cycle and discussing ways you can both work together to solve their sleep deficit.
Don’t allow weekend sleep-ins. Try to wake your teen on weekends within one hour of his or her typical time to get up during the week for school. If they get up at 6 a.m. on weekdays, try to wake them by 7 a.m. or 8 a.m. at the latest on Saturday and Sunday.
According to Children’s Mercy Hospital in Kansas City, the “rule of thumb is every hour your teen sleeps in on the weekend it will take a day for the body to adjust.”
Try to get them to sleep earlier. Granted, you are battling a hormonal change in their body clock, but every little bit helps, experts say. Falling asleep just one half-hour earlier each night adds 3.5 hours toward curing any sleep deficit.
Parents, this applies to you, too. Set an example for your children by turning off the TV and going into your bedroom an hour before bedtime to relax and start your journey to sleep. If the entire house is shut down and quiet, it sends a message that sleep is a priority in your home.
Don’t allow screens of any sort in the bedroom. All homework and social media or television should be done outside the bedroom, sleep experts stress. The brain needs to know that the bedroom is only for sleep, so that when you enter and begin your bedtime routine, the relaxation response is already underway.
Set a relaxation routine. Invite everyone into the family room for some soothing music or an adult version of story time, where everyone reads or listens to audio books. Do some family yoga or turn on a meditation tape.
Mindfulness works – schools that taught at-risk elementary children breathing techniques and yoga-based movement improved sleep by an average of 74 extra minutes a night, a new study found. That boost in total sleep time included an additional 24 minutes of rapid eye movement (REM), the dream stage of sleep when memories are consolidated and stored, and is a critical time for brain development.
Afterward, send everyone off for a warm bath or shower right before lights out.
Set up sleep success. A cool, dark bedroom helps the body sleep deeper and longer. Keep the temperature at or below 60 to 67 degrees Fahrenheit (15 to 20 degrees Celsius). Shut off any blue light from smartphones, laptops and electronic clocks by either charging them outside the bedroom or covering them with a piece of clothing. Go ahead and turn off any social media or work alerts (no Slack, Facebook, Instagram or email pings at 2 a.m.).
CNN’s Megan Marples contributed to this story.