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What To Know about Teens and Sleep

One of the first things we need to understand is the teenage years are one of the most critical periods of our development. Most teens experience rapid physical growth, their brains go through crucial transformation, they start firming up their social roles and identity, and they build skills for emotional regulation. That’s a lot being packed into a very demanding time of life. With health, teens often find themselves at a crossroads: their habits can take a negative trajectory, or they can form positive routines that can help them thrive now and over the course of their lives.

Adopting good sleep habits is critical during this time in a teen’s life and important for their growth, health, and well-being. So, where does sleep fit in the big picture for teens? For starters, getting enough quality sleep plays a big part in the behavioral and emotional health they’ll need during adolescence and beyond. But, teens have unique sleep needs that are distinct from both children and adults.

How much sleep do teens need?

Teens’ sleep differs from adults’ in that they generally require more hours of sleep to meet the demands of their growth and development. While most adults need 7-9 hours of sleep, teens typically need between 8-10 hours, sometimes up to 11.  Here’s a wake-up call:  less than 2 out of 10 teens report getting the NSF’s recommended 8-10 hours of sleep on both school days and weekends.

Teens’ unique sleep schedules

Like all of us, teens have a natural “body clock” or “circadian” clock that affects the timing of their sleep, plus a “drive” for sleep that makes them feel tired. In fact, our internal body clock changes during the teen years. Circadian rhythms start to shift later after childhood, causing teens to naturally stay up later at night before feeling tired, and then not feel alert until later in the morning. The take home message here is that it’s normal for teens’ brains and bodies to keep them up later at night and not be quite ready to go until later the next morning (hint: be prepared for this shift to stay in effect until a teen reaches their early 20s).

This natural pattern conflicts with unique social challenges and common practices like early school start times, which are tough on teens for biological reasons. So, in these situations, it’s difficult for teens to get the recommended 8-10 hours of sleep because they’re not tired early enough at night to sleep and then have to wake up early in the morning while still biologically sleepy. NSF’s 2024 Sleep in America® Poll highlighted this mismatch, showing that teens are nearly half as likely to get the recommended 8-10 hours of sleep on school nights compared to weekends. And teens themselves feel these effects.  The same study showed teens are over three times as likely to be dissatisfied with the amount of sleep they get on school nights compared to weekends.  

If teens’ sleep needs and timing patterns weren’t special enough, pile on the list of other influences like their use of technologies with screens, social behaviors, and busy activity schedules. There’s some evidence that exposure to bright light, particularly blue light, in the evening hours can even further delay when teens feel sleepy. Scientifically, light, especially within the hour before bedtime, can delay the brain’s release of the hormone melatonin which might make it harder to fall asleep. While the story of light’s effect on teen sleep is building, it’s even more important to manage the alerting activities teens are doing on screens before sleep.  Social media engagement, exciting or disturbing content at bedtime—including negative social comments and comparisons—all can interfere with healthy sleep. Teens’ use of common technologies also can directly compete with their sleep, like when they purposefully put off sleep to stay active on electronic devices. Their scheduling challenges, such as extracurricular activities and multiple demands on their time, can make it difficult for teens to allow sufficient opportunities for sleep. They may even compensate for missed sleep with a late-day or evening nap, also making it harder for them to fall asleep at night.

Helping teens to set healthy sleep habits

The teenage years are a great opportunity to set healthy sleep habits. Parents and families can be most effective in helping their teens set healthy sleep habits by actively respecting their growing independence and autonomy, helping them prioritize the importance of sleep, and making a caring connection.

·   Encourage teens to share their values, goals, and think about how healthy sleep can help them achieve those goals. Give teens the autonomy to decide what they want to focus on in their sleep health.

·   Give teens information to understand and prioritize the benefits of sleep and making good decisions. For example, how do their role models and high-performance people use healthy sleep to be at their best?

·   Consider the social context in which teens make decisions about sleep, understanding how their peers value sleep, and help them prioritize sleep in a way that actually raises their social status.

·   Champion how healthy sleep is practiced and prioritized within the family.

Helping teens establish good sleep habits is doable and worth it. It can require some effort and time, but encouraging them to create positive, healthy sleep habits now can help them be their Best Slept Self® over their entire lives.