Transport yourself back to high school. What do you remember? For many of us, it’s the busy schedules, late nights and dreaded mornings. When you mix puberty and all the school commitments, healthy sleep habits are generally not the outcome. Instead, it’s a constant battle between parents and their teens. 

But what if what we’ve always called teenage angst is actually sleep deprivation? Writing off the symptoms –– poor impulse control, academic struggles, and risky behavior –– could be doing your child a disservice and reinforcing unhealthy sleep. Around 60 to 70% of American teens are on the borderline of severe sleep debt. Sleep deprivation in teens can impact both your child’s brain development and mental health. Here’s what you need to know. 

Sleep Deprivation and Your Teen’s Brain Development 

In general, teens need at least 8-10 hours of sleep each night. Of course, how much depends on many factors –– including body weight, activity level, and lifestyle. The reason teens need so much sleep is that their bodies and brains are still growing. Their frontal lobe is still developing those fast-acting connections required to make good judgments and fully regulate their impulse control. Essentially, their limbic system –– which controls rewards, impulsivity and emotion –– is fully active, but their frontal lobe isn’t. 

Our frontal lobes develop well into our early twenties. This suggests that as the brain’s decision-making centers continue to evolve, teens will eventually control their impulsive behaviors. Think about their brains like a work in progress; parents and educators can help through communication and boundaries. All this said, it also doesn’t mean that teens are destined to make bad decisions –– some teens don’t have a problem regulating themselves. 

What’s going on in their body?

It’s easy to tell your teen to go to bed early and get more sleep. But the hormonal shifts in their body are met with changes in their melatonin productions as well. The shifts in melatonin –– the sleep hormone –– mean that your teen’s circadian rhythm is different from an adult’s. It essentially shifts it three hours backward, so even if they wanted to go to bed earlier, their body is against them. 

It’s typical for teens to feel more awake at midnight than the hours following dinner time. Much to their parent’s annoyance, many teens make up for lost sleep during the week by sleeping in on the weekends. But that’s not solving the problem; it’s only perpetuating the issue in their sleep cycles. 

Sleep deprivation can result in:

  • Diminishes the ability to learn new information
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Shortened attention span
  • Poor grades
  • Anxiety
  • Depression or aggression
  • Thoughts of suicide 

Sleep Deprivation’s Impact on Your Teen’s Mental health

Troubles with emotional regulation

Sleep deprivation also has a huge impact on your teen’s mental health and their ability to regulate their emotions. A recent study that followed around 5,000 teens discovered that sleep deprivation was closely tied to depression and anxiety symptoms. Teens with depression symptoms got on average 3.5 hours less than the control group. Sleep deprivation also increases the likelihood of mental health problems in the upcoming years. To be clear, it doesn’t cause mental health disorders, but it’s a contributing factor to severity. 

A different 2015 study of nearly 28,000 high school students found that each hour lost of sleep was associated with a 38% increase in the risk of hopelessness or sadness and a 58% increase in suicide attempts. Here’s the thing about sleep deprivation, it can impact how your teen interprets their surroundings. Sleep-deprived teens will find stressful situations more threatening than teens who get enough sleep. 

Increases in Risky Behavior and Succumbing to Peer Pressure

Sleep deprivation is also associated with compromised impulse control, which means the likelihood of drug and alcohol abuse increases. According to a longitudinal study investigating the bi-directional relationship between sleep and youth substance use, the disruption in the natural sleep cycle that teens are dealing with can significantly increase the risk of substance abuse. 

Sleep deprivation is linked to binge drinking, drunk driving and unprotected sex. Unfortunately, with that also comes an increased susceptibility to peer pressure. A 2020 study of the influence of sleep on peer influence suggests that healthy sleep habits and improved sleep quality may be one of the keys to curtailing susceptibility to peer pressure. 

Social Media’s Impact on Teen Mental Health and Sleep

Social media use can impact your teen’s sleep quality both indirectly and directly. The blue light emitted from their phone will throw off their melatonin productions –– a process that is already changing during puberty. While they are scrolling, their brain thinks it’s still light outside, so their body won’t signal to them that they are tired. Not only does social media keep teens scrolling into the morning hours, but it can have some serious effects on their mental health. 

Research has revealed that positive social media interactions light up the brain’s reward center. Essentially, getting links on their photos and being a part of social media trends feels good. Keep in mind that not every part of social media is bad. It makes socializing easy and more accessible for those with social anxiety or who struggle with social skills. Furthermore, LGBTQ and other marginalized teens can find support through social media that otherwise isn’t available to them. 

That said, cyberbullying and the need to compare to other people on social media can also have considerable negative effects on your teen’s mental health. For example, research reported in the journal JAMA Psychiatry found that teens who use social media for more than three hours each day “may be at heightened risk of mental health problems, particularly internalizing problems.”

Setting boundaries for your teen for what is okay on social media and helping them create a bedtime routine that excludes technology will help limit the negative effects of social media. 

Recognizing the Signs of Sleep Deprivation in Your Teen

Sleep deprivation can really impact your teen’s life. Thankfully, there are indicators that your teen may be sleep deprived. 

Here are the common signs that might point to sleep deprivation in your teen:

  • Having trouble waking up in the morning and sleeping late on the weekends. 
  • Bad skin and frequent illness.
  • Frequently falling asleep during the day. 
  • Drops in academic performance and concentration issues. 
  • Mood swings and an increase in irritability.
  • Hyperactivity and aggression. 

Tips For Helping Your Teen Sleep Better

While most teens are living on the edge of sleep deficits, there are some things you can do to help them form healthy sleeping habits. Aim for things that will help them feel better and help them relax enough to fall asleep.

How you can help your teen get better sleep:

  • Cut down on their caffeine or sugar intake, especially before bed. 
  • Encourage exercise or sports during the day.
  • Don’t let napping become a habit, but make time for short afternoon naps when needed.
  • Help them create a nighttime routine that includes relaxing activities like yoga or reading. Ideally, it would not include their cell phone. 
  • Limit late-night snacks that include a lot of sugar or fatty foods. There are things they can eat that can help them get to sleep

Too Long, Didn’t Read?

Up to 70% of teens are sleep-deprived. The fact is, sleep deprivation can have a big impact on both your child’s brain development and mental health. Thankfully, there are things you can do to make sure your child has the things they need to sleep well at night. For example, try setting boundaries for social media and helping them establish a realistic nighttime routine.