While lack of adequate sleep affects many people, teenagers today are among the most sleep-deprived of all and are often running on empty. On average, today’s teens get less than seven hours of sleep on school nights, even though most require eight to 10 hours. In fact, multiple sleep research studies have shown that only 15 percent of all teens ages 13-19 get the necessary amount of sleep per night, leaving them drowsy and ill-equipped to perform at their best in school or during extracurricular activities.

Experts say that teenage sleepiness has become an epidemic across the United States, leading to issues such as teenage truancy and accidents while driving as well as to depression and other behavioral problems. In fact, it has become such a problem that many schools districts—like those in Minnesota, Kentucky, Virginia, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Alaska, Colorado, and Indiana—have moved to a later school start time to accommodate the increasing number of sleepy teens who need more rest.

Some adults disregard teen sleep issues, chalking them up to “just being a teenager.” But while many adults claim to be busy every minute of the day, they would be exhausted following a teenager through a typical day. Teens have homework and a plethora of school activities. Their high caffeine consumption and poor time-management skills contribute to sleep problems. Part-time jobs and technology enticements also influence how much sleep teens (don’t) get.

Although these factors contribute to lack of adequate sleep for teens, the real reason for their sleep deficit is their unique biological makeup.

In a July 2010 study in the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine, officials defined inadequate sleep in adolescents “as less than nine hours per night.” Coauthored by Judith Owens, a pediatrician at Rhode Island Hospital and associate professor of pediatrics at Brown University, the study found that biological changes in teens cause what is considered to be a “phase delay,” a shift in a teenager’s circadian rhythms that calls for later sleep and wake times. This means that most teens have trouble falling asleep before 11 p.m., which, in turn, shifts their waking time to around 8 a.m. Researchers have also found that key changes in sleep patterns exist during puberty, preparing youngsters for increased teenage sleepiness.

The National Sleep Foundation reported that two key changes affect a teen’s sleep patterns. First, even if teens can squeeze in sufficient hours of sleep, their daytime sleepiness can still increase. Teenagers who sleep until noon are essentially resetting their sleep clocks; the idea that they are “catching up” on their sleep simply isn’t true. Second, Owens’ study showed that teenage circadian rhythm changes are due to fluctuating hormones, which explains why many teens, despite parents’ entreaties to go to bed at a normal hour, simply don’t feel sleepy at a typical adult bedtime. In fact, most teens don’t feel sleepy until around 11 p.m., even though they’re physically exhausted. As a result, when teenagers have to get up at 6 a.m. for a 7:15 or 7:30 a.m. school start time, their bodies still crave sleep.

According to Deborah Givan, medical director of the Sleep Disorders Center at the Riley Hospital for Children in Indiana, the determination to go to bed early is not enough. “The circadian rhythm determines temperature fluctuations and hormone secretions,” she explains. “Willpower alone cannot change that.”

As a result, many schools have evaluated the feasibility of later school start times, especially in light of current research, which shows that even a 30-minute delay in a school start time results in “significant improvements” in teenagers’ alertness, mood, and health. Minneapolis Public Schools was one of the first school districts to put these study results to the test, back in 1996. Five years later, in the district’s 2001 evaluation of delayed start time results, officials found that student daily attendance rates in grades 9-11 improved significantly, to around 94 percent. As a result of the Minneapolis schools’ success, other districts have since followed.

In 2005, Denver Public Schools also changed school start times. Despite initial opposition, Bridget Beatty, the district’s coordinator of school and community health partnerships, says she’s seen firsthand how lack of sleep negatively affects student performance. “Students who receive C’s or lower grades report having less sleep and more irregular sleep than students with higher grades,” she says. Beatty has found that teens who don’t get adequate sleep are more likely to have an inability to focus and stay on task in the classroom. They’re also irritable and subject to mood swings—something that all parents can verify.

Teaching Good Sleep Habits at a Younger Age

Riley Hospital’s Givan believes that parents of young children who want to improve their kids’ sleep habits should learn more about teenage sleeping habits now so that they can reinforce the importance of good sleep habits while their children are young. “Before middle school, kids are very good sleepers,” Givan says. “But as a child ages, the outside world governs sleep more than the inside sleep clock.” Parents start to lose control over their child’s sleep habits, which is why teaching young kids early about how much sleep they need is critical, she says.

Parents should remember that good sleep habits are a lot like good nutrition. Most kids can get by with less sleep, but it’s just like a child getting by with a poor diet and no exercise. “They pay a price,” Givan says. “You create a sleep debt that decreases your life span. All kids show signs of it…we call it adolescence, puberty, or hormones, though it may just be sleep deprivation.” Parents should begin by understanding just how much sleep their teen actually needs—but the teen has to agree that he wants to fix his sleep problems.

  • Start first with a physical examination. For a teen with sleep issues, the best starting point is a full physical examination by a pediatrician to see if she has any obstructive sleep apnea issues. Of the teens that Givan sees, the majority have obstructive sleep apnea that correlates with the country’s current obesity epidemic. (Medical studies have found a correlation between obstructive sleep apnea and obesity, perhaps caused by fat deposits reducing the amount of space in breathing airways such as the throat.

  • Be cautious of sleep supplements. As for supplements like melatonin—a hormone that the body naturally secretes when the sun goes down and it gets dark outside—Givan warns that parents should be cautious. Currently, supplements like melatonin are not regulated by the FDA, and if the drug in question isn’t prescription-grade, anything can be part of the supplement’s ingredient formula. In fact, Givan says, information published in a medical newsletter a few years ago revealed that some brands of over-the-counter melatonin contained unidentified impurities that researchers were unable to characterize.

  • Decrease electronics use close to bedtime. Electronic distractions—including televisions, computers, iPods, and other electronic devices—play havoc with teen sleep habits and are distractions most parents don’t think to regulate. Even though these devices create sleep disruption issues for teens who use them before bedtime, some 71 percent of teens report having a television in their bedrooms, with no time limits on usage. So even if your teenager claims that she falls asleep easier when listening to music, she’ll be subject to middle-of-the-night awakening, Givan says. Limiting or removing electronic devices before sleep can be very helpful to a teen with sleep issues.

  • Advocate for later school start times. Realistically, the older our children get, the less control we have over their sleep habits. An early emphasis on and education about good sleep habits is critical. But parents can do more. They can advocate for later school start times within their school districts, using current data to support their request. They can monitor their teens’ sleep habits, limit electronic usage well before bedtime, and make sure that health problems that affect sleep, like asthma, obesity, and sleep apnea, are properly diagnosed and treated. Finally, parents can model good sleeping habits themselves, which will lead to healthier lives not only for themselves but also for their children.

Rebecca A. Hill is a freelance writer who crafts articles on education, literacy, and reading issues. She has been published in a variety of national education magazines and holds a master’s degree in library and information sciences from Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis. She lives in Zionsville, Ind., with her two boys and husband.