Sleep and Teens - Biology and Behavior

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Mary A. Carskadon, PhD 

Mary A. Carskadon, PhD

How much sleep do teens need? And how much sleep are they realistically getting?

Based on current data, we think that most teens need on the order of 9-plus hours nightly to have optimal sleep. The NSF poll data indicate that most teens fall short of this goal, many by a considerable amount. Although we think that the need for sleep does not really change across adolescence, the amount of sleep young people get does decrease in older teens. Thus, the sleep deficit grows right along with the youngster.

How does sleep deprivation affect the teenager?

Many factors combine to decrease sleep in adolescents. We can think in general of two major factors: behavior, by which I mean all the psychological, parental, societal, cultural features of a teen’s life, and biological, by which I mean the brain processes that regulate the amount and timing of sleep. I’ve come to think of adolescents and their sleep patterns in 21st century America as a version of the "perfect storm."

The sleep-wake bio-regulatory factors appear to undergo significant changes during adolescence. These changes lay the ground work for the biological night to occur later during the teen years than before. Circadian rhythms (daily biological clock) seems to slow down and lag behind as young people progress through the middle school years. At the same time, the sleep pressure system appears to change in a way that makes it easier to stay awake longer, though without changing the amount of sleep that is needed.

Do you think that the increase in electronics (i.e. electronic games, TV, iPod, etc.) has created a sleepy child syndrome?

It is no longer an issue of electric lights in the home, but many teens have a veritable technological playground in their bedrooms: television, computer with 24/7 Internet access, telephones, electronic game stations, MP3 players, and so forth. These technologies can also provide instant and incessant contact with peers. Societal/media pressure to consume these technologies is now higher than ever. Yet society also requires that teens go to school at a time of day that