Study: Do Teens Need Less Shut-Eye than We Think?

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Between extracurricular activities, homework and late-night Facebooking, many teens aren’t catching the nightly z’s they need. Or are they?

Although national guidelines recommend that teens get at least 8.5 hours of sleep a night — a bar that few teens actually meet — a new study suggests that they may not require as much shut-eye as we thought, at least not if performance on standardized tests is any measure.

In their report published in the current issue of the Eastern Economics Journal, researchers from Brigham Young University analyzed a nationally representative sample of 1,724 students and compared the amount of sleep they reported getting to their standardized test scores. Sixteen-year-olds scored best on only 7 hours of sleep a night, it turns out. For 12-year-olds, the optimal amount of sleep was slightly over 8 hours, and for 10-year-olds it was about 9 hours.

“If your kid’s not getting nine hours of sleep, maybe you don’t have to worry so much,” study author and Brigham Young University economist Mark Showalter told MSNBC, especially if he’s not actually sleep deprived.

MORE: 10 Risky Behaviors More Common in Sleepy Teens

So where does the nine-hour standard come from? The researchers believe the current sleep recommendations date back to a 1970s Stanford University study of teens and their sleep patterns. In that study, teens were brought to a lab a few days a year for three years and told to sleep as long as they wanted. But, of course, how much teens want to sleep and how much they need to sleep are two different things.

“We couldn’t find much scientific empirical backing for the common recommendations,” Showalter told MSNBC.

His findings fall in line with a separate study published in Pediatrics last week that looked more than 100 years of reported sleep duration in kids. That study concluded that no matter how much sleep kids have historically gotten, it was always assumed that they weren’t getting enough. The study also found that sleep recommendations have always been pretty subjective.

Healthland’s Bonnie Rochman reported:

[I]n reality, there is almost no evidence about how much sleep kids truly need to function their best. “We think for no particularly good reason that kids need more sleep than they’re getting,” says [senior author Tim Olds, a professor of health sciences at the University of South Australia in Adelaide]. “Every so often a group of blokes get together and say, What do you recommend, boys? Should we push it up to 9 hours, 15 minutes? It really is like that, honestly. It’s an arbitrary public-health line in the sand that people draw.”

MORE: A History of Kids and Sleep: Why They Never Get Enough

That being said, it’s entirely likely that teens aren’t getting enough sleep — it’s just that there isn’t good scientific evidence of that. But while chronic lack of sleep has been tied to many ill health effects, including increased risks of depression and weight gain, it looks like getting less than a full 9 hours shouldn’t hinder test scores. No more excuses, teens.