Is Your Teen a Night Owl? That Could Explain His Poor Grades

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Staying up late is almost a rite of passage for teens, but night owl students could be paying the price with lower grades years after high school.

There’s plenty of research showing that the sleep-wake cycle of adolescents is about two hours behind that of pre-pubescent children, which means they are more likely to wake up later in the morning and go to bed later at night. And that also means they’re not well-timed with the school clock, either. But newly published research reveals that this mismatch may have lasting implications that dog high schoolers into their college years.

The study by University of California Berkeley researchers, published in the Journal of Adolescent Health, compared how the different sleep habits of 2700 teenagers, aged 13 to 18, affected their academic and emotional development. They found that teens who stayed up later than 11:30 pm on school nights — which included 30% of the study subjects — fared worse than early-to-bed kids, and that these consequences lingered six to eight years later, even into college.

Younger students, aged 14-16, suffered both academically and emotionally, says the study’s lead author, Lauren Asarnow, a doctoral student in clinical psychology at UC Berkeley. They had worse cumulative GPA’s at graduation and more emotional distress, as measured by questionnaires post-graduation. The GPAs of the 16-18-year-olds didn’t suffer as much, possibly because they were more used to being sleep-deprived. However, they were more emotionally troubled than their early rising counterparts in college and beyond. They were more likely to report they were “sad,” “down, or “blue,” and said they cried frequently, or showed other symptoms of depression. “It is really important,” Asarnow says, “to get our teens to bed earlier and to start young.”

Why do some teens stay up so late, even when they could go to sleep earlier? Their internal clocks certainly play a role in setting their sleep and wake cycles. But adolescents may also fail to realize how sleep deprivation affects them, physically and emotionally. And factors like parental monitoring, their dependence on technology, and academic and social pressures, which tend to escalate during middle school and high school also contribute.

But, says Asarnow, “The good news is that sleep behavior is highly modifiable with the right support.”

One controversial strategy is to stop fighting sleepy teens in the classroom and simply adjust their school schedules to start later in the morning. While a few pioneering school districts have tried this approach, and others are studying it, it’s still primarily up to parents to come up with better ways of bringing bedtimes in line with current school realities. Shelby Harris, director of the Behavioral Sleep Medicine Program at Montefiore Medical Center in New York, says, “This study highlights in even more depth the necessity to screen for school year bed time preferences in adolescents.” In order to make the right intervention, she says, it’s important understand why teens stay up so late. While nearly 70% of those in the study went to bed by 11:30pm, about 30% simply couldn’t get to sleep at that hour. Some, says Asarnow, may be the victims of their circadian clocks, while others just more seduced by their smartphones and late night activities, or not instructed enough by their parents to put their computers and phones away when it’s time for bed.

Whatever the reason, Asarnow offers these tips from Berkley’s sleep coaches to help night owl teens get more shut-eye:

1) Develop a wind-down routine that includes things like meditation or yoga

2) Start dimming the lights one to two hours before bedtime

3) Make the bedroom a technology-free zone, from 30 minutes to an hour before sleep time

4) Create weekend curfews that are an hour or less later than weekday bedtimes to avoid  “social jetlag,” which Asarnow likens to flying from New York to San Francisco every week.

“Even though kids may squawk about these rules,” says Carole Lieberman, a psychiatrist and author of Coping with Terrorism: Dreams Interrupted, “they are really comforted by knowing that their parents care enough to monitor them.”

Getting them to comply with better sleep habits may require some negotiation, says Asarnow. One method that works involves asking teens to pay attention to—and to write down—how they feel on a week when they are sleep-deprived and what consequences they suffer. Referring back to that may help them see the value of getting enough sleep — and going to bed on time. “You really don’t want to feel that way even for a week,” Asarnow says. “So, as you become aware, you start to value sleep more and more.” And that, as her findings show, could have lasting benefits.

4 comments
JenniferBonin
JenniferBonin

"The good news is that sleep behavior is highly modifiable with the right support."

No, actually, for many of us night-owls, it's not.  

As a teenager, I had to be up by about 6:30 in order to dress, eat, and be out the door by 6:45.  My parents, knowing this, enforced a 9pm bedtime.  I don't really blame them for this, since they were right that I needed my sleep, and really, what else could they do?  But it didn't help.  Every night, I'd lay down in my bed at 9pm, and I'd still be wide awake at midnight.  And it wasn't typically a matter of "over-stimulation" -- often, being a book-oholic, I'd have been reading for an hour or more before bedtime already.  As a teen, I HATED having to start school so early, since my alarm always went off at precisely the time I was getting my best sleep.  Ditto for college, when I had 8am classes.

I'm 33 now.  Fortunately, I have a job that allows me to set my own schedule.  So now I don't go to bed til midnight (and don't FALL asleep til at least 1am) and sleep til 8:30.  I get much more useful work done in the morning (though it's still my least productive time), and I can use my high-productivity time during the late evening (9pm-midnight) to get "productive" hobbies like writing for fun or practicing my flute done.  Even today, when I have to switch to "early morning" mode and try to go to sleep earlier, I often can't fall asleep and just frustrate myself trying to do so.  Even if I can sleep, it's light sleep, where any noise from outside (or the cat, or the husband) wakes me, rather than the deep sleep I get most often toward dawn.

It's nice to say that teens (and adults!) need more sleep.  I agree.  But it's not as easy as "early-to-bed" people claim to just switch one's schedule over.  It'd be a lot more practical to move the school schedule, so classes started at 8:30 rather than 7:30.  For the record, that's STILL early for someone like me, when you take bussing into account.  But an extra hour of GOOD sleep would mean a heck of a lot to a lot of students with my sort of natural sleep schedule.

SkyMadisonLisette
SkyMadisonLisette

Doesnt this kind of contradict the other article that you posted awhile back about how people who are night owls are more intelligent, creative and have a better chance at better careers and ect in life? 

terraziporyn
terraziporyn

It may be worse for "night owl" teens, but until we return to more traditional school hours (8:30 or 9 a.m. starts), MOST teens won't get close to enough sleep on school nights. Several decades ago, many high schools moved clocks earlier, starting classes around 7 am, with buses starting as early as 5:45 am. A 16-year-old would have to be sound asleep at 8 or 9 pm to get enough sleep under these conditions - and that's simply unrealistic for both biologic and cultural reasons. Sure, technology may make things worse, but even teens with impeccable sleep hygiene will suffer the consequences of sleep deprivation under these conditions. Instead of continuing to expect  individual students and families to solve this problem, we need to rectify the mistake we made in thinking we could fiddle with school clocks without consequences.--Terra Ziporyn Snider, PhD, Executive Director, www.startschoollater.net

TallusRip
TallusRip

Being a night owl in high school was an absolute nightmare.  No matter what time I went to bed, I would still be wide awake until sometime around 1am at least.  After that, during college years, my brain would be wired until somewhere around 3am, but I was still having to get up around the same time.  I'm 28 now, and I generally get tired around midnight or 1am.

I don't know how any of the above recommendations would really work.  Teens aren't interested in 'cool down time.'  They're always on the go, always wanting to do something...be it with their friends or online.  I'd sooner say adjusting school hours to being later would help.  10am to 5/6pm instead of 8am to 3/4pm.  I've always found that even if I stay up later, the fact that I can sleep until 9am makes all the difference.  It's probably a mental thing, because 7am is just obscenely early...  I still think that even though I have to be at work at 8.  I hate mornings.