Letter: Is adolescent sleep deprivation due to bad habits or biology?

To the Editor:

It is common to default to learned behaviors or perceived ideals even when presented with solid scientific data. For example, many well-intending parents force children to eat out of concern they may not get adequate nutrition otherwise.  

Years ago, science demonstrated that this “clean plate club” approach is harmful, increasing the risk of eating disorders and obesity and reducing intake of healthy foods. Yet many good parents, in a moment of desperation, will coerce children to eat “just one more bite.”

We must rely on the science, and not misconception, to protect the health of students by providing healthy start times.

What the science says:

  • Teens require 8 1/2 to 9 1/2 hours sleep/night.
  • During sleep the brain processes information, solidifies memories, and heals body and mind.
  • Later start times are directly correlated with more sleep. When start times are made later, students maintain the same bedtime.
  • Adolescents do not release the sleep hormone melatonin until approximately 11 p.m. and continue to produce it until 8 a.m. A teen waking at 6 a.m. is like an adult waking at 4 a.m. Every. Single. Day.
  • When adolescent sleep aligns with biological circadian rhythms, sleep quality improves, students are better learners, and they are more efficient and productive.
  • Sleep deprivation during the week, combined with sleeping in on weekends, results in diminished grey matter volume in the prefrontal cortex. This effect is irreversible. The prefrontal cortex is responsible for problem-solving, planning, reasoning, and repressing socially inappropriate behaviors.
  • Early start times increase rates of anxiety, depression, suicide ideation, substance abuse, risk-taking, and athletic injury.

Should teens turn off devices at night? Absolutely. Should they go to bed at a reasonable hour?  Of course. Should we force them to be awake when their bodies are not biologically supposed to? No. We should not.

Pam Hartnett MPH-RD