5 more minutes — The slippery slope of sleep debt

As children and teens return to school it’s a good time to reflect on their routines and the impact they have on their health and well being. With many teens having busy school days, jam-packed with academic demands, extracurricular activities and an active social life it’s helpful to revisit the advice of health experts who recommend that teenagers experience between 9-10 hours of sleep every night to function at their best.

Having less sleep compromises their physical and emotional health with it playing a vital role in consolidating their cognitive development and emotional well-being and stimulating the growth hormones that help their body develop throughout puberty. This is known as sleep deprivation which can be defined as a state caused by inadequate quantity or quality of sleep and there are a number of factors that contribute to it.

Research has found that:

  • Australian teens are the third most sleep deprived in the world

  • 70% of Australian high school students suffer from regular sleep deprivation

  • Teens in Australia face a 3 hour sleep deficit per night on average

  • Teenagers who spend 5 hours a day online are 50% more likely to fail meeting their minimum sleep requirements than peers who only spend an hour online each day

  • 40% of teens consume at least two energy drinks per day to cope with sleep deprivation

To understand sleep deprivation, it’s necessary to understand how sleep works.

Sleep is regulated by two separate biological mechanisms in the body: sleep-wake homeostasis and circadian rhythm.

As we sleep, our brains pass through five stages of sleep, which together make up one sleep cycle.
This sleep cycle consists of stage 1, stage 2, stage 3, stage 4, and REM (rapid eye movement) sleep. One complete sleep cycle lasts about 90-100 minutes and we usually run through approximately five sleep cycles per night.

When a person doesn’t spend adequate time in each sleep stage, they will begin to accrue sleep debt, a major manifestation of sleep deprivation. Symptoms of a large sleep debt include mental or physical fatigue that can impair cognitive judgement, create difficulty with managing emotions, and impact the body’s senses and health.

Regardless of age and gender, the feeling of sleepiness is triggered by melatonin, the hormone that regulates sleep.

As darkness falls, light-sensitive receptors in our brains trigger the release of melatonin. However, a teenager’s body is biologically programmed to delay the release of melatonin, which means that their urge to fall asleep occurs much later in the evening. In fact, research indicates that teens’ production of melatonin usually starts one or two hours later than it does for people in other age groups.

By understanding a teens’ biological needs, parents will be better equipped to help their teens foster sleep patterns that reinforce their physical and emotional wellbeing.

Yet biology is not the only factor working against teens getting sufficient amounts of quality sleep.

Unfortunately, the attraction and never-ending distractions of ‘being plugged in’ to the digital world at all times can cut into the amount of sleep teenagers receive and have a detrimental effect on their quality of rest as well.

Many teens find themselves on digital devices, browsing social media deep into the night.

Some sleepless teens argue that since they have trouble falling asleep, they might as well indulge in ‘one more game’ or browse their social newsfeed while they wait to feel drowsy.

However, research consistently shows that light and noise from a digital device can exacerbate a teen’s delayed body clock and block a teen’s ability to fall asleep.

Why are digital devices so intrusive for a night’s sleep? To produce artificial white light, electronic devices such as tablets, smartphones and other devices issue light at short wavelengths. This artificial light stimulates the retina in the eye, inhibiting the release of melatonin and disrupting the body’s natural circadian rhythms, which can keep teens awake for longer.

Family Discussion Opportunities

  • How do we as a family ensure that we are all getting enough sleep?
  • Do you have guidelines for tech use before sleep and where devices are kept during sleep time?
  • Has your family negotiated device usage before and during sleep? How do you enforce it?

For RESOURCES and SOLUTIONS Read:  ‘Sleep Deprivation Solutions For Teens — Taking Action.’

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