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How much sleep do teens really need? Maybe less than you think

Feb. 19, 2012 at 1:01 PM ET

Seven hours of sleep a night is enough for most older teens, research shows.

If your teen’s lack of sleep is keeping you up nights, a new study should help put your mind at ease.

National guidelines recommend at least eight hours of serious snooze time a night for young people. But that’s an unrealistic goal for adolescents, who are overloaded with homework, extracurricular activities and part-time jobs, experts say. Or who feel the need to stay up late texting friends or updating Facebook.

In fact, if standardized test performance is any indication, 16-year-olds score best with about seven hours of sleep a night, surprising new research finds.

Brigham Young University economists Eric Eide and Mark Showalter -- who are also dads -- used a nationally representative sample of 1,724 students, comparing children’s and teens’ standardized test scores with the amount of sleep they reported.

For older teens, seven hours a night was plenty. The optimal amount of sleep for 12-year-olds was higher, about eight hours, while 10-year-olds did best with about nine hours. The report appears in the current issue of the Eastern Economics Journal.

“If your kid’s not getting nine hours of sleep, maybe you don’t have to worry so much,” Showalter says, unless they’re regularly getting significantly less. “Certainly there is good scientific evidence that extreme sleep deprivation or oversleeping has serious health consequences,” he says.

Showalter believes the current recommendations are based on surveys of adolescents in the 1970s. The teens were brought into a lab a few days a year for three years and told to sleep as long as they wanted to. Any parent of a teen knows that how much they want to sleep could be way more than how much they need to sleep.

“We couldn’t find much scientific empirical backing for the common recommendations,” Showalter says, echoing a paper that came out last week in the journal Pediatrics. That report, by Australian researchers, concluded that “no matter how much sleep children are getting, it has always been assumed that they need more.”

What about research suggesting students are more alert in morning classes with later start times?

That might have more to do with how early the teen has to get out bed, Showalter says, rather than the total time spent in bed.

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