Sleep Deprivation


“Adolescents are different in how they sleep.” (Dr. Mary Carskadon)

If you were to Google search “sleep deprivation in teenagers” tonight, you would get 257,000 hits! This number reflects not only the reality of this issue but also alerts parents to their teen’s potential for being sleep deprived. Health and Wellness Canada claims the key to the health and well-being of all ages, especially teenagers, is adequate sleep. Yet in today’s busy society sleep is not seen as a priority.
In the literature, sleep is described as being “food for the brain”. If that is the case, our teenagers today are starving! According to sleep experts, teenagers need a minimum of 9 - 10 hours of sleep a night – even more than they needed in junior high school. Yet a recent survey of 3,235 Canadian students found that 70% of high school students got less than 8 hours of sleep on school nights and reported feeling ‘really sleepy’ during school. Statistics from the Canadian Sleep Institute (CSI) also report that 20 to 25% of junior and senior high school students today fall asleep during their classes. Inconsistent sleep routines, staying up late at night and drinking caffeinated beverages before bed, were all directly linked to this tiredness. In her research, renowned sleep expert Dr. Mary Carskadon, found that teens getting less than 9 hours of sleep, when offered a chance to sleep mid-morning, fell directly into the deepest level of sleep (REM sleep) – a sign of severe sleep deprivation.
So, what is creating this problem? Adolescent biology for one – their brains. In previous Parents at Ainlay articles ( ), we discussed the enormous changes that are found within the adolescent brain. In fact, during adolescence there is a biological cause for a delay in the sleep cycle. You can blame your teen’s crazy sleep habits on their brain! The sleep hormone melatonin, creates changes in normal sleep patterns. This results in teens being unable to fall asleep until much later at night, and wanting to sleep much later in the morning. Sleep experts call this “delayed sleep phase” - it’s hard to fall asleep, and even harder to wake up. In one study, melatonin levels were measured in teenagers’ saliva, and found to be released at later and later times during the night, as they progressed through adolescence.
Another contributing factor to the sleeplessness of today’s adolescents is the lure of our 24/7 society. The need to meet the demands of: schoolwork; extracurricular activities - sports, music, drama, leadership, etc.; part-time jobs; along with their important time spent with friends, often robs teens of their time to sleep. Sleep often takes a back seat. Busy parents, staying up late to meet similar demands and expectations, end up sending the wrong message to teens who unquestionably need their sleep. Researchers found adolescents recognize their spiral into sleeplessness, and the negative impact it has on their quality of life, but also admit to needing help when it comes to re-organizing their time ito allow for more sleep. That would be the role of parents. In order for teenagers ‘need for sleep’ to hold greater value, its relationship to good health needs to be recognized by families and society in general.
Another significant contributing factor to sleep issues for today’s adolescents is technology. Teenagers, with easy access to cell phones and computers, essentially have access to friends, music, movies, TV shows etc. at all hours of the day and night. Current research findings report that the light from computers and television screens are contributing to the sleeplessness of teens. This “waking up the brain” while doing late night homework and ‘chatting’ with friends online, watching TV or playing video games, disrupts teenager’s ability to fall asleep at a reasonable hour. These activities, combined with their brain’s natural delay in sleep, leave them in trouble. Sleep routines, frowned on as ‘only for little kids’, are actually one solution to helping teens fall asleep at a reasonable hour. That, along with turning off technology an hour before bedtime, has been proven effective in combating adolescent sleeplessness. Irregular sleep schedules – up early for school on weekdays, and sleeping in late on weekends further contributes to problems with teens falling asleep or waking up. Research has shown that teenagers’ accumulated sleep loss cannot be recovered by sleeping in on weekends. Without regular sleep schedules, adolescents’ sleep patterns shift to even later. Eventually, this has the potential to lead to serious sleep disorders, which can continue through into adulthood. Sleep expert, Dr. Amy Wolfson states, “It’s scary how little sleep teens get today!”
So, what is the documented impact of sleep loss on our teenagers? The table below highlights some of the main effects:


Physical health
Unhealthy lifestyle choices due to tiredness can lead to poor health eg. lack of exercise, poor diet
increased hunger hormones causes cravings for carbohydrates, which can lead to excessive body weight
research findings show a rise in both obesity and type 2 diabetes in adolescents
increased likelihood of stimulant use, e.g., caffeine products (The adolescent brain is much more sensitive to alcohol and stimulants. This is the time when future substance use/misuse/dependency can start.)
immune system weakened – frequent illnesses e.g. colds, flu
Research findings show that sleep disorders found in adults most often began in adolescence, e.g., insomnia, narcolepsy.

Emotional health
teens who don’t get adequate sleep score higher on tests measuring levels of sadness or hopelessness
feelings are harder to control and more exaggerated
negative moods (irritability)
anxiety, depression and feeling overwhelmed
increased aggressive behavior (anger)
use of substances to improve their mood and deal with their feelings of tiredness – caffeine, nicotine, alcohol, drugs
decreased feelings of motivation
Research studies are focusing more attention on the role sleep deprivation is playing in stress and depression in teenagers.

School performance
falling asleep in school
increased absenteeism and reduced school attendance (particularly early morning classes if they have been up late working or studying the night before).
inconsistent or decreased school/academic performance
decreased short-term memory and reduced learning ability
more difficulty thinking creatively
overall school success suffers

Unintentional injuries –55% of all sleep-related motor vehicle accidents are caused by teenagers.

The research findings clearly show that today’s adolescents are increasingly sleep-deprived. Demands and expectations placed on teenagers, alongside poor sleep schedules and sleep habits, are preventing them from meeting their basic sleep requirements. The impact this sleep loss has should not be underestimated – the consequences can be serious and lifelong! As parents, our role is to prevent it from happening to our own teenagers. Below are some suggestions for parents and teens on how to resolve and prevent chronic sleep loss.



Sleep Tips for Teens

Try to get as much sleep as you can at night, as often as you can. Make sleep an important part of your schedule.
Try to have a sleep routine at night that helps you fall asleep –relaxing in a quiet room for the hour before you go to sleep can help.
Try to avoid screen use (tv, computer) and cell phones for the hour before bed.
Going to sleep at a similar time each night helps – whether it’s on weekdays or weekends. Getting up at the same time also helps.
Avoid unsafe activities (e.g., driving) when you are tired.
Don’t smoke, don’t consume alcohol, caffeine or street drugs.
Don’t build up a “sleep debt” – that means, try not to go without enough sleep for days/nights at a time. You can never recover the sleep that you are losing.



Sleep Tips for Parents of Teens:

Be aware of, and monitor your teen’s sleep habits.
Discuss with them what their optimal sleep schedule should be. Work with your teen to adjust commitments and activities to allow for adequate sleep and rest.
Encourage regular schedules for going to bed and getting up on weekdays and weekends. (This means keeping track of your teen’s activities and demands, and making sure they are getting to bed at a reasonable hour each night.)
Provide a relaxing, quiet time in your home for the hour before sleep, when lights and loud music are dimmed and computers, TVs and cell phones are turned off.
Be a role model for healthy sleep schedules. That means having healthy sleep habits yourself.
Look for signs of inadequate sleep in your teen such as:
Difficulty waking up in the mornings
Irritability late in the day
Falling asleep at any time during the day
Sleeping in extra late on weekends
Consult Harry Ainlay’s Student Services or your family doctor if you have concerns about your teen’s sleeplessness.