Teens Need More Sleep, They Just Don’t Know It

Something happens to the “inner clocks” of teens that makes them want to stay up later at night and sleep later in the morning, writes cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham in his latest blog post. But, of course, they still must wake up for school. Hence, many are sleep-deprived. What are the cognitive consequences of sleep deprivation? Willingham explains:

“It seems to affect executive function tasks such as working memory. In addition, it has an impact on new learning—sleep is important for a process called consolidation whereby newly formed memories are made more stable. Sleep deprivation compromises consolidation of new learning (though surprisingly, that effect seems to be smaller or absent in young children).

Parents and teachers consistently report that the mood of sleep-deprived students is affected: they are more irritable, hyperactive or inattentive. Although this sounds like ADHD, lab studies of attention show little impact of sleep deprivation on formal measures of attention. This may be because students are able, for brief periods, to rally resources and perform well on a lab test. They may be less able to sustain attention for long periods of time when at home or at school and may be less motivated to do so in any event.

Perhaps most convincingly, the few studies that have examined academic performance based on school start times show better grades associated with later school start times. (You might think that if kids know they can sleep later, they might just stay up later. They do, a bit, but they still get more sleep overall.) . . .

Can anything be done to get teens to sleep more? Believe it or not, telling teens ‘go to sleep’ might help. Students with parent-set bedtimes do get more sleep on school nights than students without them. (They get the same amount of sleep on weekends, which somewhat addresses the concern that kids with this sort of parent differ in many ways kids who don’t.)

Another strategy is to maximize the ‘sleepy cues’ near bedtime. The internal clock of teens is not just set for later bedtime, it also provides weaker internal cues that he or she ought to be sleepy. Thus, teens are arguably more reliant on external cues that it’s bedtime. So the student who is gaming at midnight who tells you ‘I’m playing games because I’m not sleepy’ could be mistaken. It could be that he’s not sleepy because he’s playing games. Good cues would be a bedtime ritual that doesn’t include action video games or movies in the few hours before bed, and ends in a dark quiet room at the same time each night.

So yes, this seems to be a case where good ol’ common sense jibes with data. The best strategy we know of for better sleep is consistency.” (Read more here.)

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