New research exposes common myths about teen sleep and explains why most teenagers don't hit the recommended 8 to 10 hours of sleep per night.
The paper, published Sept. 28 in the journal Sleep Health, reviews 10 widely held tropes among parents and caregivers, including:
- Staying up late and sleeping in on weekends isn’t a big deal so long as teens get enough sleep during that time.
- Delayed school start times encourage later bedtimes.
- Melatonin supplements are safe because they’re “natural.”
According to study author Rebecca Robbins, an investigator at Brigham and Women’s Hospital’s Division of Sleep and Circadian Disorders and an instructor in medicine at Harvard Medical School, teen sleep is intricate.
"During adolescence and puberty, there are biological changes to sleep such as a delay in the secretion of melatonin, which produces more drowsiness," Robbins told TODAY Parents. "This creates a challenge that, coupled with social and environmental pressures, present a perfect storm for teen sleep deprivation."
Social and academic pressure, energy drink consumption and the "lazy teen" stereotype also can make teen sleep a misunderstood topic, Robbins noted.
Here are 10 common myths about teens and sleep:
Myth 1: Unmotivated kids fall asleep during class
There is a developmental defense for teens drifting off in school (and it's not because the lesson is a snooze): Puberty.
Robbins' study referenced older data on the sleep habits of 10-year-old children over the course of six or seven years. That data indicated that daytime drowsiness increases with puberty, the process of sexual maturity that usually begins between the ages of 8 and 13 for girls and the ages of 9 and 14 for boys.
In the older study, 92% of kids who hadn't entered puberty stayed awake during daytime assessments, compared with 48% in the later stages of development. That suggests physiology, not laziness, is to blame for sleepiness during the school day.
Myth 2: Teens should study all night before taking tests
No one, including teens, can think clearly when sleep-deprived.
Staying up late to study deteriorates the ability to retain information, and the next-day exhaustion clouds cognitive function in areas of problem-solving, reasoning and comprehension.
"The best learning outcomes happen when teens study in chunks," Robbins told TODAY Parents. "So if a test is coming up in two weeks, daily reviews of information combined with sleep is ideal."
Parents can help procrastinating teens structure study schedules, especially when test anxiety and social pressure looms, she added.
Myth 3: Teens who hit snooze are lazy
"One parental complaint is, ‘My teen is lazy’ but many wake up too early for school, anywhere between 5:30 and 6," Robbins said. "Teens may be awake but their brains are on their pillows."
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, early school start times (before 8:30 a.m.) are partially responsible for teen exhaustion.
Recently, California mandated that public high school classes cannot start before 8:30 a.m. and middle school classes cannot start before 8 a.m. Experts praised the change for helping teens to improve both their learning and their health.
Myth 4: Sleep schedules are beyond the control of most teens
Remember that strict bedtime routine we adhered to as new parents? Redo it for your teen.
Powering down electronics, reading books, drinking tea or chatting together creates an optimal sleep environment for everyone.
"It's harder for teens to say, 'I want to go to bed early,' so parents can help set limits around technology use and prepare for the evening," Robbins said.
Myth 5: Teens compensate for later school start times by staying up at night
Don't presume teens will delay bedtime with later school start times.
"We have objective data showing that (in these cases) teens keep their bedtimes but get an extra hour of sleep in the morning," Robbins said. She also noted in her paper, "One study actually documented a shift to a significantly earlier average bedtime by 20 minutes after a delay in school start times."
Myth 6: Energy drinks reverse the effects of a sleepless night
Sugar, caffeine and other stimulants in energy drinks can cause anxiety, health problems and insomnia, according to the CDC. Still, as Robbins' study reported, "30% of 10th to 12th graders report regularly consuming energy drinks."
"Energy drinks trick the brain into thinking the body isn't tired," Robbins explained. "Caffeine, however, lingers in the body, sometimes anywhere between six and nine hours."
Myth 7: Melatonin is a safe supplement because it's "natural"
According to the Mayo Clinic, melatonin supplements may help with jet lag or sleep disorders. However, Robbins spotlighted their "controversial" reputation.
"The use of supplements has doubled in 10 years across all age groups," she said. "That increased rate has not been coupled with enough long-term research to understand the implications of melatonin supplements."
Robbins' study included separate data that questioned the accuracy of melatonin labels and noted that teens frequently take the supplements without medical supervision.
Myth 8: Adolescents need less sleep than younger kids
Yes, high schoolers need a bit less sleep than their younger peers — 8 to 10 hours vs. 9 to 11 hours — but most teens don't reach anywhere near the recommended guidelines to begin with.
Therefore, worrying about the average teen sleeping "too much" is moot.
Myth 9: Staying up and sleeping in on weekends is OK as long as teens get enough rest during that time
"Many teens keep a yo-yo sleep schedule in which they have one sleep schedule on school nights and another on weekends," Robbins said. "We're not talking about a 30-minute discrepancy — it's often a two- to four-hour time difference."
The imbalance creates "social jet lag" that "worsens circadian misalignment which leads to functional impairment, including lower academic performance, risky behaviors such as excessive alcohol consumption, and increased mental health symptoms," the study notes.
"If we continue that cycle, the brain believes we are flying to another time zone," Robbins explained. "That's why it's common to struggle on Monday if you don't sleep enough on Saturday."
Myth 10: Getting too much sleep is bad for teens
There's no reason to be concerned if teens sleep in sometimes versus regularly.
"(Sleep) guidelines relate to consistent nightly sleep duration, not occasional nights of 'recovery' sleep after periods of sleep deprivation," the study states. "Because most adolescents do not even meet the lower end of the recommended range of 8-10 hours of sleep consistently across nights, it is quite rare for adolescents to routinely get more than 10 hours of sleep at night."