For Immediate Release
August 23, 2010

KDHE Office of Communications
communications@kdheks.gov, 785-296-0461

Is Your Teenager Getting Enough Sleep?

An Op-Ed Column by Jason Eberhart-Phillips, MD
Kansas State Health Officer

With school starting up again in Kansas, the lazy days of summer for children and adolescents are coming to an abrupt end.

For teenagers who have gotten used to sleeping late during the summer months, the early start times at many of our state’s high schools are bound to cause a few rude awakenings. In recent years, more schools than ever have begun requiring their bleary-eyed students to arise before dawn to make it to classes that start at 7 a.m., or even earlier.

Without the help of caring adults, these young people will limp through their school days in a chronic state of sleep deprivation.

Sleep loss is becoming a serious concern for teachers, parents and health professionals who care about the well-being of young people. Recently the American Medical Association House of Delegates voted to identify insufficient sleep and daytime sleepiness among adolescents as a critical public health problem needing more attention.

Evidence is growing that sleep-deprived teenagers suffer from an array of problems related to attention, memory, and control of inappropriate behavior. As a group, drowsy teens are more likely to underperform in school, to drive recklessly on the street, and to miss out on getting the exercise they need to avoid obesity and other health problems.

Compelling research now shows that most adolescents need about nine or even ten hours of restful sleep every night to function at their best. But surveys tell us that today only 15 percent of teens get even eight and one-half hours of shuteye on school nights, and that many are getting by with barely six hours of sleep, or even less.

What this means is that most teenagers today, kids whose lives are filled with homework, sports, after-school activities and part-time jobs, are falling well short of the sleep their bodies require for good health and full enjoyment of life. Some kids get so little sleep they might best be described as walking zombies.

One seemingly simple solution is to get teens into bed at an earlier hour. After all, wise people like Ben Franklin have told us for years that good things will happen to those who make a habit of being “early to bed and early to rise.”

What Franklin didn’t know was that normal adolescents undergo a physiological change around the time of puberty, a change that sleep experts call the “sleep-wake phase delay.” During the teenage years, humans naturally begin to feel more awake in the evening than they did as children.

This means that throughout the world teens will unavoidably shift their bedtimes by at least two hours into the night, and arise later the next morning – unless early school bells say otherwise. For American teens today, this biologically determined sleep cycle puts them directly in conflict with school start times, with hours of precious sleep lost as a result.

What can parents and other concerned adults do about the problem of teenage sleep deprivation?

First, we can lend our support to later school start times by raising the issue with school administrators and local school boards.

In schools around the country where later start times have been implemented, adolescents have shown improved motivation, better class attendance, heightened academic performance, fewer incidents of misbehavior and greater overall alertness.

With all that we know now about the importance of teens getting enough sleep, it may be time for Kansas educators to consider seriously the benefits of an 8:30 AM start time in high schools around the state.

On the home front, parents can help their teens get better sleep by assuring that their bedrooms are quiet havens for real rest, with all electronic devices turned off at night.

They can also help their teens avoid caffeine late in the day, ensure that they get adequate physical activity during the day to improve nighttime sleepiness, and see that they take 30 minutes or more before bed to wind down by reading something light, listening to music, or taking a bath or shower.

Finally, parents can help set a consistent bedtime and wake-up schedule for their teens, even on weekends. Routine sleep times will get a teen’s body into sync with its natural sleep pattern, making it easier to doze off at bedtime and be more alert during the day.

We live in a culture that undervalues sleep and its restorative powers for body and mind. Sadly, our teenagers may be paying the price for that, unless we act to make getting a good night’s sleep a higher priority.

Dr. Eberhart-Phillips is the Kansas State Health Officer and Director of Health in the Kansas Department of Health and Environment. He can be reached at jeberhart-phillips@kdheks.gov. Previous columns are now available online at Dr. Jason’s Blog, www.kdheks.gov/blogs/dr_jasons_blogs.htm.