One of the stereotypes about youth is that they go to bed too late and sleep in a lot. Some may attribute this to laziness or some other equally poor reason, but the truth is that youth are different from the rest of us when it comes to sleep.
We know that adolescent sleep patterns are different from those of children and adults. During the teen years, the body’s clock (circadian rhythm) which regulates sleeps, tells him or her to fall asleep later and wake up later. The probable cause is that melatonin, the brain chemical that helps regulate sleep, is produced later at night for teens than for children and adults.
We learn much about our youth from the McCreary Center Foundation’s BC Adolescent Health Surveys (AHS). The most recent survey was administered to about 30,000 students across the province; it provides a comprehensive look at the health of youth aged 12–19.
The 2013 survey asked about students’ sleep and identified some areas of concern. For example, only about a quarter of students slept at least nine of the recommended hours on the night before they took the survey while five percent slept four hours or less. Most students used their phone or the Internet after they were supposed to be asleep (85% of females, 79% of males). Among this group, only 19% slept for at least nine hours on the night before as compared to 44% of those who had no such distractions. This is concerning because lack of sleep was also linked to poorer mental health.
The AHS found that students in every grade who slept nine or more hours the night before completing the survey were more likely than students who got less sleep to report that their mental health was good or excellent. Moreover, rates of good or excellent mental health increased with each hour of sleep that students got; findings were consistent across all grades. To put this into context, the National Sleep Foundation, a non-governmental organization based in the US, recommends that adolescents have 8.5 to 9.25 hours of sleep each night.
Using electronic devices (‘screens’) before bed has been associated with sleep problems in adolescents. A survey from Norway published in 2015 links blue-light emitting devices like laptops, phones and game consoles to shorter sleep in adolescents. It could be that the light from the screens directly affect our circadian rhythms, and teenagers may be especially sensitive. More specifically, the researchers found that using any device in the hour before bed was associated with a 13 to 52 percent increase in the likelihood of needing more than 60 minutes to fall asleep. And at every level of electronics use, the teens who used their devices more took longer to fall asleep than the teens who used their devices less.
Sleep is food for the brain. It provides time for many body functions and brain activity to occur. That means that skipping sleep can be harmful. Insufficient sleep may simply make you feel less sharp, or it could make you more moody. Lost sleep can also lead to poor performance whether in school, work or in sports, and sleepiness can make it hard to get along with others.
Some of the clues to watch for include difficulty waking up in the morning, an inability to concentrate, and feelings of moodiness or even depression. There are things you can do to improve your sleep, yes, including cutting back on late night screen time. Indeed, parents are encouraged to set good nighttime routines with children from an early age—sleep is important for growth and development, and for resiliency for coping during the day.
Written by Dr. Paul Martiquet, Medical Health Officer for Rural Vancouver Coastal Health including Powell River, the Sunshine Coast, Sea-to- Sky, Bella Bella and Bella Coola.