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.