Teenage Sleep

December 3, 2019

More than half of 16 and 17-year-olds areb not getting the recommended eight to 10 hours of sleep on school nights,  according to a new Australian study, again raising the call by some experts to look at later school starting times.

Dr David Cunnington, director of the Melbourne Sleep Disorder Centre, said he had seen an increase in the amount of children presenting with sleep-related issues.

“People in adolescent and teenage years have a tendency for their body clocks to run a little later,” he said.

“But if you’ve got to get to school at a certain time that means your sleep is going to be truncated.”

He said “a difficult dynamic” was sometimes created when parents tried to force teenagers to go to sleep earlier even though they were not tired.

Dr Cunnington said educators needed to consider pushing back the school day for adolescents to get the best results, but acknowledged it would be a difficult societal change to implement.

“We don’t have the data to say what’s the magic number — but later,” he said.

Dr Darren Mansfield from the Epworth Sleep Centre said more research was required to confirm whether later class times could help students.

“If we push the school time back, sure they will sleep in a bit longer but we are also concerned that it will further shift their body clock in that forward direction,” he said.

In the United States, concerns about high school students suffering from a lack of sleep prompted Californian lawmakers to introduce rules dictating that classes could not start before 8:30am. Many schools start at 9am.

In the UK, MPs are debating whether secondary schools should start at 10am instead of 9am following an online petition signed by more 179,000 people, which claims “teenagers are too tired due to having to wake up very early to get to school”.

The petition argued: “The government should require secondary schools to start later, which will lead to increased productivity at school.” 

The French government has already considered doing something similar in some schools in Paris, by pushing the school start time from 8am to 9am

The call to reignite the argument to push back school startings times comes as new research, published by the Australian Institute of Family Studies, reported that on school days, nearly all 6-7 year olds were getting the required minimum hours of sleep, but only half (50%) of 16-17 year olds were.

Other findings included: 

  • Children aged 12-17 years were less likely to get the required minimum hours of sleep on school nights compared to non-school nights.
  • Around four in five children thought they were getting enough sleep, when they were in fact not meeting minimum sleep guidelines for their age.
  • Children not meeting minimum sleep guidelines were more likely to show symptoms of poor mental health (anxiety, depression, unhappiness), be late for or absent from school, spend more time on homework and have internet access in the bedroom or spend more time on the internet.
  • 12-13 year olds who participated in sport and/or had regular bedtimes were more likely to meet minimum sleep guidelines for their age.

The Australian Institute of Family Studies research pointed out children and adolescents needed adequate sleep for healthy growth, learning and development. 

Not getting enough sleep was associated with a range of physical and mental health problems that could interfere with current health and functioning and have consequences for health and wellbeing later in life).

The research is the first detailed analysis of Australian students’ sleeping habits.

About 10,000 children and their families were surveyed around the country between 2010 and 2016.

The analysis also found about a quarter of 12 to 15-year-olds were suffering from a lack of sleep, but children under 11 fared better because of bedtimes enforced more strictly by parents.

Recommended sleep times

Age Recommended
0-3 months 14 to 17 hours
4-11 months 12 to 15 hours
1-2 years 11 to 14 hours
3-5 years 10 to 13 hours
6-13 years 9 to 11 hours
14-17 years 8 to 10 hours
18-25 years 7 to 9 hours
26-64 years 7 to 9 hours
≥ 65 years 7 to 8 hours

Figures from the Sleep Health Foundation.

“There’s a sense that maybe kids are getting less sleep than in the past,” research fellow Dr Tracy Evans-Whipp said.

About one in four 12 to 15-year-olds with internet access in their bedrooms suffered from a lack of sleep, while teenagers who spent more than two hours a day on the web were also sleep-deprived on school nights.

“Certainly there have been concerns raised around the busy lifestyle these young people have been leading around homework, and also the screen use creeping into their evening activities,” Dr Evans-Whipp said.

“It’s not clear whether internet use contributes to reduced sleep or whether adolescents who have difficulty sleeping use the internet to deal with that or have more time to spend online because they are sleeping less.”

Caffeinated beverages, such as energy drinks and coffee, were also having a negative impact on 14 and 15-year-olds.

On non-school nights, such as weekends and holidays, teenagers were found to get between nine and 10 hours of sleep.

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