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Sleep-Deprived Teens: Our Fault and Our Problem

Teens are getting less sleep than they did 20 years ago, and it’s time we paid attention–before it comes back to bite them and us.

We’ve been hearing a lot about teens and sleep recently. There have been a number of studies all showing that teens are getting less than the recommended 9 hours, many of them getting less than 7 hours (which is certainly what I’m seeing in my practice). There have been studies looking at the causes, such as cell phones, television, homework, activities, or early school start times.

The latest study in the journal Pediatrics, “The Great Sleep Recession: Changes in Sleep Duration Among US Adolescents, 1991-2012,” says a lot of the same stuff. But what’s different is that it takes the longer view–and shows that while there are some variations between boys and girls or between races or income levels, in general all teens are sleeping less now than teens did in 1991.

This is important. This means that the problem isn’t just about individual teens or families. This means that it is a societal problem–it belongs to all of us, and it is our responsibility

It’s easy to say, oh, it’s no big deal if kids sleep a little less. Hey, we adults say that all the time about ourselves. We prioritize work, friends, entertainment–almost everything, actually–over sleep. We even admire those who seem to get by with less sleep.

But here’s the thing: Sleep matters. Getting less sleep leads to health problems (including a higher risk of obesity, cardiovascular disease, and infections) and mental health problems, not to mention poor performance at school and work and an increased risk of car crashes and other accidents.

The authors of the study point out that increases in obesity in teens correlate really well with their increasing lack of sleep. It’s likely that increases in fast food intake and decreases in exercise might have something to do with it too. But that’s just it: our teens are becoming less healthy in various ways.

And that’s not okay.

It sounds hokey to say that our kids are our future, but, well, they are. If this next generation starts out adulthood unhealthy and less productive, that doesn’t bode well for us economically–or in any way. It also doesn’t say much about us as people, if we can’t muster to take care of our youth.

It’s easy enough to say that they are the ones choosing to text all night, or that we can’t help it if they have a lot of homework, or that the extracurriculars that mean less time for sleep will help them get into college. But that’s a cop-out. We are the ones in charge, the ones who are responsible.

We are the ones who could actually put our foot down about cell phones at night, could advocate for later school start times, could help kids with time management so that there was more time for sleep.

We are also the ones who need to do some soul-searching about the achievement culture that is feeding the hours and hours of homework and resume-building activities. It’s the grownups that are feeding that, not the teens.

It’s what we are letting them do, and telling them to do, that is causing the problem. It’s not just their fault–it’s ours. And it’s not just their problem–it’s ours.

Photo credit: 2012 Rowan Saunders, Flickr | CC-BY-ND | via Wylio

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