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6 Surprising Ways Teens Are Affected by Lack of Sleep

· Article

6 Surprising Ways Teens Are Affected by Lack of Sleep

Sure, we know our moods are worse when we’re tired. But what other things does poor sleep impact with teens?

At 7:30 a.m. on an average school day, many of Jacquelyn McKinney-Lynch’s high school students in Romeoville, Illinois, have their heads on their desks. Additionally, some are late to class while others are absent altogether, simply too sleepy to function that early in the morning.

Not getting enough sleep has a ripple effect throughout the day, with behavioral issues more common in sleep-deprived teens, notes McKinney-Lynch.

While McKinney-Lynch encourages her students to get more sleep, she says obstacles like after school jobs or taking care of siblings eats into their sleep time. Most readily admit that social media plays a role in staying up late.

“Many will say, ‘Yes, I need to sleep,’ but they don’t disconnect from their phones or they sleep with their phones, which is not good,” states McKinney-Lynch.

Ideally, teens should sleep nine to 10 hours a night, but most are only getting about seven hours nightly, says Eve Van Cauter, a professor emeritus at the University of Chicago Department of Medicine, and the founder and former director of the Sleep, Metabolism and Health Center.

Recent Sleep Number research finds nearly three out of four high school students and two out of three middle school students aren’t getting enough sleep.*

“Insufficient sleep can affect cognitive, emotional and physical development,” says Van Cauter.

Van Cauter shares that teens are the most sleep deprived segment of modern society. It’s not something teens or parents should shrug off. No matter how independent they seem, they may need their parents’ help to create better sleep habits.

What’s Going On?

Teens not going to bed until 11 p.m. or later, despite needing to be up before 6:30 a.m., isn’t about defiance or electronics, although there’s plenty of evidence that screen time contributes to later bedtimes. It’s in their biology.

“Parents are usually not aware that when their 16-year-old can’t go to bed and be asleep by 10 p.m., that this actually reflects a biological change and not only a behavioral issue,” says Van Cauter.

The shift to going to bed later and rising later in the morning is known as circadian phase delay and it’s a normal part of a teen’s unique physiology.

Early high school start times further erode teen sleep time. With extracurricular activities, a typical teen’s day can last from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. before starting homework.

“In adults, that work schedule can only be sustained at most three days a week, and teens are doing that five days a week or more,” says Van Cauter.

Trying to catch up by sleeping in on the weekends wreaks havoc on your teen’s circadian system because of the time difference between school’s early wake-up and a weekend spent sleeping until noon, adds Van Cauter. It’s known as social jet lag.

Sleep’s Impact on Teens

According to Van Cauter, while many parents focus on the academic fallout of not getting enough sleep, there are other significant short-term and long-term effects of sleep loss in teens.

Mood and Relationships

Mood swings and behavioral issues aren’t simply the byproduct of surging hormones. Sleep loss produces a variety of psychosocial and cognitive deficits. “Kids who have insufficient sleep, adults too, are more likely to be depressed, to have anxiety, and suicidal thoughts,” says Van Cauter. Sleep loss can also affect executive functioning and self-control, areas where the teen brain is still developing. “It can cause aggression, hyperactivity, and impulsive and risk-taking behavior, such as alcohol consumption.”

Sleep Number tested sleep tips with students and found three steps that help improve mood, reduce stress and improve sleep quality here.

Physical and Sexual Development

Sleep influences hormones important for growth and sexual maturation, some of which are mostly released during sleep. Testosterone, a hallmark of puberty, and growth hormones are released upon sleep onset. “Kids who don’t have enough sleep may be at risk of not developing to their optimal height,” Van Cauter says.

Athletic Performance

Van Cauter reports sleep is vital for physical performance and recovery as well as building muscle mass versus body fat, and helps prevent traumatic injury. Sleep deprivation can also reduce reaction time and coordination. Research from the American Academy of Pediatrics found teen athletes who sleep eight hours or more each night were 68% less likely to suffer injuries than athletes who slept less.


“Insufficient sleep promotes increased appetite, increased drive for food, and increased snacking, which are major risk factors for weight gain,” says Van Cauter. All of that can put a child on the path to obesity, which is tougher to handle in adulthood. “Studies have also shown that children who were short sleepers are much more likely to be obese adults.”

Like many good habits, better sleep behavior begins at home. “Getting sufficient sleep and sleep hygiene should really be a family endeavor,” says Van Cauter.

“Sleep is not only important in adults, but in childhood, because childhood in part determines your health during adulthood.”

Like nutrition and exercise, quality sleep is essential for optimal health and performance. To ensure kids and their families understand the impact of quality sleep and have the tools to achieve it, Sleep Number is committed to improving 1 million kids’ lives through better sleep by 2025. To learn more, visit the Sleep Number Social Impact page, and find your Sleep Number® setting for your best possible night’s sleep.

*GENYOUth and Sleep Number partnered together to gain perspective on teen sleep. Online survey conducted April 26 to May 18, 2018 with a nationally representative sample of middle, junior, and senior high school students, ages 12-18, including 1,587 youth affiliated with GENYOUth programs and initiatives and 521 youth in a control group.

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