June 8, 2022
Sleep is a study strategy, sleep is a mood regulator, and there are practical ways for teens to improve the quantity and quality of their sleep. Those were the takeaways of my column: “Three Things to Teach Your Teen About Sleep and Your Brain.”
When I talk to high school students, the topic of their sleep—or lack of it—often comes up. So I was delighted to read an early copy of Lisa L. Lewis’ new book, “The Sleep-Deprived Teen: Why Our Teenagers Are So Tired, And How Parents And Schools Can Help Them Thrive.”
This book is an outgrowth of Lewis’ previous work on the topic, including her role in helping get California’s landmark legislation on healthy school start times passed. Here are a few of the questions I had for her—because we all shoulder some responsibility for systems that keep our kids sleep-deprived.
DFK: Why this topic? What gets you fired up about sleep & our teens?
Lewis: I didn’t fully realize the scope of the issue until I started looking into it in 2015—the year my son entered high school. I knew his school’s 7:30 a.m. start time felt much too early, but I quickly learned that this was the case in far too many districts around the country, not just ours! It’s especially concerning that only about one in five high-schoolers get at least 8 hours’ sleep on a typical school night. That’s the minimum they should be getting: the recommended range (until age 18) is 8-10 hours a night. Our teens are chronically sleep-deprived, which has far-reaching implications for everything from mental health to graduation rates.
DFK: What’s one piece of actionable research that you wanted to share with every teen and parent when you discovered it?
Lewis: It makes intuitive sense, but the role of sleep in emotional resiliency is such an important one. Also, one researcher I spoke with found that teens and preteens who’d gotten a good night’s sleep reported having fewer arguments with their parents!
DFK: Yes! That reminds me of something Lisa Damour once told me—that sleep deprivation is one of the simplest explanations for the rise in anxiety-related concerns and that “sleep is the glue that holds human beings together.”
So we know it’s important. But there’s a lot of blame thrown around about teens and sleep: it’s the school’s fault for assigning too much work or starting too early; it’s the parents’ fault for not drawing boundaries and letting kids have unfettered access to technology; it’s the kids’ fault for not using good time management strategies and texting constantly! What do you think about all this?
Lewis: There are SO many contributing factors! On the bright side, there are also so many ways that we can help make a difference. Setting the stage for our teens to be able to get a good night’s sleep can take many forms.
First, it really should include having a healthy start time for the school day: the official recommendation from the American Academy of Pediatrics is 8:30 a.m. or later for middle and high schools, given the impact of too-early start times on teen sleep.
All of the other items you noted can be important too, including not being on devices until the wee hours. We know, though, that in many cases, teens have to be online to do homework or turn in assignments, and when the turn-in deadline is 11:59 p.m., that may tacitly encourage them to wait until then to do so.
DFK: The teens I talk to often express real anger and frustration. “I want to get more sleep,” they tell me, “but I have too much homework, and if I don’t get good grades, my parents will be angry and I won’t get into a good college.” What would you say to that student—the one who doesn’t feel like there are any options BUT to stay up late doing homework?
Lewis: This is such an important point. So many teens have too much on their plates. The broader suggestion is to look at all of those commitments—course load (including the number of advanced/honors courses) plus all of their other activities, such as sports and extracurriculars and part-time jobs—to determine if there are even enough hours left in their daily schedules for 8-10 hours of sleep.
There are a couple of planning tools from Challenge Success in the appendix of my book that can be tremendously helpful for this. It may also be time for a mindset shift, including recognizing the effects of this pressure-cooker environment on our kids’ mental health.
Kris: Where do we go from here? What are two or three steps all of these constituencies— schools, parents, and teens—can take?
My main message is to prioritize sleep. This means recognizing that teens should be getting 8-10 hours and making changes that are more sleep-friendly.
For schools, this means having healthy school start times, looking at turn-in times for homework, and perhaps making other changes as well.
At home, this may mean taking a hard look at expectations and overall work-life balance. Additional steps parents can take include establishing some household rules for evening tech use, trying to help our teens avoid waiting until the last minute to complete assignments, and encouraging them to come up with a wind-down routine before bed. It’s better for all of us if our teens are well-rested.