Nowadays, it’s all too easy to sweep sleep deprivation under the rug as a normal rite of passage that every teen experiences. Yet, there is a growing body of evidence to support the claim that ‘sleep debt’ complicates the lives of many modern teens.
While it’s true that adolescents are naturally more likely to face challenges in obtaining an adequate amount of sleep  these symptoms shouldn’t be dismissed as ‘normal’. In fact, sleep deprivation in teens can actually reduce their opportunity to build a strong foundation for adult life and hamper their ability to take charge of their emotional and physical wellbeing.
This article will discuss sleep deprivation symptoms that often occur in teens and provide information on how to combat them. Parents who are armed with an understanding of these warning signs will be better equipped to help their teens forge healthy sleep habits.
What causes sleep deprivation in teens?
There are many contributing factors that can lead to sleep deprivation. For teens, it may be exacerbated by an array of issues, including social and peer influence, cultural and environmental factors, individual physiology, and the use of technology before bed.
During puberty, all teenagers experience a dramatic shift in their natural circadian rhythms, which makes forging consistent sleep patterns difficult. Biologically, a teenager’s body is programmed to delay the peak-time release of melatonin (the ‘darkness’ hormone that induces sleep), pushing their urge to fall asleep to occur much later in the evening. For most teenagers, peak melatonin release falls between 11 pm and 8 am .
Furthermore, recurring studies demonstrate that teenagers need between nine and ten hours’ sleep on average to function at their best emotionally and physically . Therefore, if they aren’t tired and don’t fall asleep until 11 pm, but need to rise at 6 am or 7 am for school, they are effectively accruing what is known as a ‘sleep debt’ of 7-14 hours each week, even before incorporating additional digital distractions.
Research shows that technology can exacerbate a teen’s delayed body clock. In the modern age, technology permeates almost every aspect of our lives. To keep up with friends, many teens bring their mobile phones or iPads to bed with them even after they’ve switched off the computer. Unfortunately, this can be counterproductive to forging healthy sleeping patterns, as light from an electronic device such as a laptop, smartphone or iPad screen will further delay melatonin secretion. Between this digital interference with natural sleep patterns and teens’ delayed melatonin release, it’s no wonder that sleep deprivation is so prevalent in today’s teens.
Not all teenagers feel comfortable discussing or sharing details of their sleeping habits – especially when it’s due to being on their devices late at night. To diagnose whether your teenager is receiving enough sleep, the following list of symptoms may prove useful:
1. Mood swings
While it’s easy to dismiss a teen’s mood swings as the simply being the result of an influx of hormones, studies illustrate that not getting a complete night’s rest may be a hidden culprit. Sleep debt can significantly impact emotional wellbeing and hinder a teen’s capacity to effectively regulate their emotions , aggravating family relationships.
Mood changes may take many forms, both obvious and subtle: low spirits, irritability, increased aggression, inability to cope with stress, and decreased enthusiasm for previously enjoyed activities. If poor sleeping patterns persist over months, sleep deprivation may deepen into more severe issues such as depression .
2. Exhaustion and compromised immune system
A lack of proper sleep, such as interrupted sleep or inability to fall into deep sleep, can have far-reaching health consequences such as fatigue or a lowered immune system. Over time, deep body exhaustion can compound, impacting the body’s ability to prevent and recover from illness, even suppressing physical growth. Observable symptoms may include napping throughout the day, having trouble getting out of bed in the morning, jumbled words or word slurring, and frequent colds that last longer than usual. Inability to enter or sustain sleep has also been linked to obesity and poor metabolic regulation .
Deep sleep, also known as ‘slow wave’ sleep, is a vital sleep phase that helps the body heal, recover from physical tiredness, and restore damaged cells . A teen will reach deep sleep approximately 35-45 minutes after falling asleep. Research shows that when time spent in deep sleep is continually interrupted, the body cannot perform cell repair as effectively . Furthermore, even if a teen manages to fall asleep, they may experience difficulty transitioning into a deep sleep due to interruptions such as light, noise or vibrations from mobile phone notifications. This interrupted sleep can wreak havoc with a teen’s immune system, health, and general well-being.
3. Inability to focus
Many teenagers report becoming easily distracted or feeling unable to concentrate and absorb information. This often manifests as being uninterested, or having a short attention span and a decreased ability to concentrate and learn . In fact, sleep deprivation can exacerbate symptoms of ADHD or even lead parents to falsely assume that a teen has a neurodevelopmental attention problem.
Studies repeatedly show that teens experiencing sleep deprivation perform poorly with memory tasks and complex problem-solving in comparison to their well-rested peers . Over time, this may cause students to underestimate their learning ability, lowering their self-esteem regarding their cognitive skills .
4. Slower physical reflexes
A common symptom described by teens troubled with sleep deprivation is slower physical reflexes. Externally, this may materialise as clumsiness, decreased visual and motor skills, or limited spatial awareness, resulting in a greater risk of physical injury from sports .
5. Trouble falling asleep
Many teens argue that since they have genuine trouble falling asleep, they might as well indulge in a midnight snack or ‘watch one more Netflix episode’. Unfortunately, eating a bite just before bed or inundating the body with light and noise from a digital device may further hamper a teen’s ability to fall asleep. Instead of engaging in technology-focused activities before bed, experts recommend building a relaxing pre-bed routine that helps ease the body into sleep gradually. Ideas to help teens unwind and get ready for sleep include reading, taking a bath, and enjoying a hot milky drink or a caffeine-free herbal tea .
What are the next steps?
As a parent, it can be difficult to start a conversation with your teen about their sleeping habits. You may face resistance or denial as your teen asserts their independence. To help your teen feel comfortable, or at least to prevent them from becoming defensive, it’s best to listen to their needs and take a collaborative approach in designing solutions that will help them sleep better. First, you’ll need to help them understand the benefits of sleep. This may mean appealing to what your teen values most.
For example, in the short term, symptoms of sleep deprivation such as mood swings can:
- Make a teen feel angry or irritability
- Decrease their stress tolerance
- Create waves of sadness.
In the long term, this can complicate a teen’s efforts to maintain healthy relationships with friends, significant others or family.
An inability to focus can make teens more susceptible to distractions in class and make it difficult to learn. Over time, this may:
- Possibly hamper academic performance
- Lead to lower confidence in learning
- Create difficulties achieving success in a career or job
- Hinder financial independence.
To help your teen understand the benefits of sleep, emphasise how gaining a proper night’s rest may:
- Relieve stress during a turbulent emotional time
- Strengthen their relationships
- Improve their future.
Exhaustion or a weakened immune system can lead to bouts of short-term sickness and sometimes longer, more severe illnesses. Ensuring that the body is well restored through deep sleep will help your teen maintain good health. If your teen is an athlete and dreams of one day reaching their highest potential height, highlight the important role that sleep plays in a body’s healthy development.
The key to navigating issues of sleep deprivation in teens is to encourage self-empowerment through knowledge and autonomy. Coming prepared to this conversation with a thorough understanding of sleep deprivation symptoms will allow you to have an open conversation with your teen about how intermittent or poor sleep may be impacting their welfare.
As a concerned parent, it’s crucial to discuss with your teen why sleep is so important, work out and collaborate on strategies together, and increase their self-care literacy so they can take charge of monitoring their own sleep behaviour. Gaining a consistent good night’s rest will not only help your teen feel their best, but it will also make them happier within their relationships, improve their learning, support their growth and wellbeing, and ultimately, help them achieve a brighter future.