It seems like a no-brainer that teenagers who drift through breakfast like zombies should be getting more sleep, right? And the solution is equally obvious: confiscate their cell phones, turn off their computers, enforce a lights-out policy at 10 p.m. How else are they going to get the eight-and-a-half to ten hours recommended by venerable institutions like Harvard University and the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute?
But not so fast. The thinking on teen sleepiness is getting complicated these days. On one hand, there’s reason to believe that American teens should get more sleep than they actually do, say researchers at the University of Pennsylvania. Released this week, their findings suggest that increasing sleep duration to 10 hours a night could help cut down on adolescent obesity.
Recommended Sleep Times: Are They Valid?
On the other hand, a new review of literature published this month in the journal Sleep suggests the issue of children’s sleep need is far from settled. Consider, for instance, this fascinating factoid: at any given age, children from Asia sleep
- 60 to 120 minutes less than children in Europe, and
- 40 to 60 minutes less than children in the United States.
Not only do Asian children get less sleep, but they also report needing less sleep than their European and American counterparts. What to make of this huge discrepancy? Are children’s sleep needs determined by genetic differences or sociocultural context? Are Asian children catastrophically sleep-deprived?
The upshot of this review is that any recommendations you’ve ever heard about the sleep needs of teenagers are speculative and based on inadequate data, a fact which, in the words of sleep investigator Irwin Feinberg, “embarrasses our field.”
Feinberg, in an accompanying editorial, acknowledges that daytime sleepiness among adolescents is a major public health concern. Yet spending more time in bed may not help.
Changes in the Adolescent Brain
The human brain undergoes a major reorganization during adolescence, says Feinberg, and this reorganization has a dramatic effect on teenagers’ brains at night. Young children get lots of deep sleep. But the proportion of deep sleep children get begins to decline in early adolescence, and this is strongly related to an increase in daytime sleepiness.
Adolescence also brings a steep decline in a lighter stage of sleep characterized by theta brainwaves, says Feinberg, and that this decline correlates even more strongly with the steep rise in sleepiness in children as they move through their teenage years.
But here’s the kicker: the decrease in theta waves and the corresponding rise in sleepiness occur independent of how long teens sleep or how many hours they stay in bed.
So is there a solution for adolescents who can barely get dressed in time to catch the bus? Later starting times at middle and high schools may be part of the answer. As for the rest, it’s wait and see.
If you’ve got a sleepy teenager (or if you ever had one), what ways have you found to combat the problem?