Today's teens are struggling to fit enough sleep into their busy lives

School is only part of a hectic teen's day in modern Australia.
School is only part of a hectic teen's day in modern Australia. Photo: RubberBall Productions

Let me introduce you to three 14-year-old girls: Mandy, Margaret and Joanne. They are all drunk tired.

"We go from school to sport to homework to bed to sport, back to school. And then you have to fit part-time work and friends in there. It's too hard." – Mandy

"A good night is five hours for me. A bad one can be three hours." – Margaret

With or without technology in the bedroom, many teenagers find it difficult to get to sleep.
With or without technology in the bedroom, many teenagers find it difficult to get to sleep.  Photo: Getty Images

"It's so hard to get out of bed of a morning. And if I have two consecutive nights' sleep of only six or seven hours, on that third day I can't cope. And then Mum will just say something and I'll go off." – Joanne

Today, school is only part of a hectic teen's day, and for many 14-year-old girls, the day can reach far into the night.

Rowing can start before the moon nods off to sleep, meaning an alarm clock cuts through any teen dreams as early as 4.15am. Rowing morphs into school, which becomes hockey or swimming training or netball practice. Home beckons, but means a quick shower and dinner. And the clock chimes 8.30 pm. Often, this is when many girls first open their books to begin the assigned homework. 

Mandy, Margaret, and Joanne are not exceptions to the rule. Busy-bee lives are unfolding each day in schools across Australia, and the impact is devastating. Teachers report yawns from 9am and brain experts say learning while tired is pretty much useless. Parents admit they're not sure what time their teens nod off, and many girls nominate a lack of sleep as the key reason behind conflict with their parents. 

Heavy school workloads, on top of extracurricular activities, are a key reason behind an epidemic in sleep deficit. Our 14-year-olds are worried sick, even if they are not telling you. It might be anxiety over an upcoming test or friendship angst that follows your daughter home from school. The lure of the blue-lit screen resting on the bedside table adds to the problem, with the short-wavelength light emitted suppressing the sleep hormone and delaying sleep onset. In lay terms, the teen's brain is being told it's time to wake up.

And then, when they wake to a piercing alarm the next morning, what is their first act? That question is put to a group of Brisbane 14-year-olds. The answer is so in tune it seems practised: "Check my phone."

Advertisement

Sarah goes to bed between 10.30 pm and 11.30 pm. She admits she is on Instagram, Tumblr, Snapchat, Facebook, Twitter, Skype and ooVoo. Sheepishly, she also owns up to the fact that she's only allowed social media between 4 pm and 9.30pm – so doesn't begin her homework until 9.30pm. Her case points to another issue: few 14-year-olds have curfews, and those who do largely ignore them, tucked in their room with the door closed, while their parents, tired themselves, nod off to sleep up the corridor.

When this picture is described to Dr Chris Seton, an adolescent sleep physician at Sydney's Westmead Children's Hospital, he nods his understanding. None of this is a surprise; he hears it every day. About 80 per cent of his patients are drawn from private schools, many of them weighed down by nonstop extracurricular activity cycles and hours of homework. Seven in every ten 14-year-old girls gets insufficient sleep, most of them recording fewer than eight hours, when nine hours is the minimum required.

About 15 per cent, Seton says, sleep for only five hours each night. Seton's passion for the challenge shows itself in the frustration he holds over the sleep-deficit epidemic that is still not accepted as a public health issue.

"A good night is five hours for me. A bad one can be three hours," Margaret said.
"A good night is five hours for me. A bad one can be three hours," Margaret said.  

The average 14-year-old with 30 minutes of missed sleep records a measurable IQ difference of up to 10 points, he says. Ten points! Isn't that enough information for this to be treated as a serious public health issue? And it doesn't stop there. Seton says a string of other links – between insufficient sleep and drug and alcohol use, depression and anxiety – also exists, and the problem continues to grow.

The drop in academic results recorded by tired students can be explained by how sleep loss affects short- and long-term memory; the old adage "in one ear and out the other" is truer than we might have believed. Short-term memory loss can happen with one night's missed sleep. For good long-term memory, a teen needs sufficient sleep to consolidate their learning.

"If they get a good night and they learn well during the day and then they sleep badly [the next] night, the memory has not gone into long-term memory," Seton says.

Exhausted: Teenagers are tired, but they still can't resist the lure of their smartphones.
Exhausted: Teenagers are tired, but they still can't resist the lure of their smartphones.  Photo: Eddie Jim

The list of problems associated with drowsy teenagers runs to pages. Impaired learning. Mood swings. Anxiety. Depression. More prone to developing a negative body image. Low self-esteem. A loss of their sense of humour. Sleep-hungry teens are also more likely to eat fast food two or more times a week, have difficult relationships with their parents, increase school absenteeism and be put on detention.

"Not getting enough sleep causes the number of T cells in a teenager's body to fall by 30 to 40 per cent, thereby reducing the ability of their immune system to fight everyday infections," Seton adds. 

It's not surprising that Kids Helpline often receives calls from high school students late into the night. Many of them are studying, and anxious, or still on their phones. But, despite the enormous amount of money poured into the education system and the focus on how best to test our students, nothing has changed to assist their sleep patterns.

Today's teens are struggling to get enough sleep.
Today's teens are struggling to get enough sleep.  Photo: Fiona-Lee Quimby

Some schools have instituted "sleep hygiene lessons" as part of life-skills programs, where students are taught a routine to get ready for bed.

That's right: in Year 9! Seton is teaching the same routine in his clinics. Forty-five minutes before bed, all technology is turned off, then the teen has a bath. A chilled music playlist is turned on, a snack and a drink devoured, before the teen slips into bed.

"It trains the brain to get ready for sleep," Seton says. "It means when the light goes off the brain is not racing."

But few follow it. 

Teenage girls in particular, say experts, suffer FOMO (fear of missing out) if they turn their device off overnight. They'd rather suffer tiredness than arrive at school, into their peer group, being the only one who wasn't up with the nocturnal electronic goings-on. That is borne out in the data showing the percentage of teens texting – not just after midnight but after 3 am on weeknights. 

Seton says about 45 per cent of teens aged 14 to 16 regularly sent texts after 3 am, and 75 per cent after midnight. Some were sending more than 100 texts a night. The average sat at 34. Unfortunately, it's not only sending the texts that's part of the equation; the anticipation of waiting for a reply to a text means the brain wakes up – a term called "infomania". 

Arianna Huffington, founder and former editor-in-chief of the Huffington Post and author of The Sleep Revolution, has also brought a bit of welcome celebrity to the call for more sleep. Speaking at the 2016 National Coalition of Girls' Schools conference in New York, she received a rock star's welcome for her call for us to redefine what success means. The audience – educators in girls' schools the world over – saw, on a daily basis, the devastating impact that a sleepless night waged on a student.

"We need to educate our young girls that they don't have to burn out to succeed," Huffington told the packed room.

School start times needed to be changed, too, she said.

Some Australian schools have been tinkering with start times, but there is no mass move to allow high school students to begin their daily education a bit later. Some schools have raised it as an option, but support for it amongst families is low. And in some cases, there has been strong opposition to trialling later start times.

Jane Danvers, principal of the Wilderness School in South Australia, like most of her peers, agrees with the science behind calls to change the school day. But she says obstacles exist to make it difficult and schools frequently looked at other ways to cater for teens. For example, timetables were often structured to differentiate what was taught in morning classes and what was taught in afternoon classes.

At the moment, the 8.30am to 3pm model is compatible with bus and train timetables, allows homework to be done before dinner, and doesn't create a logistical problem for big cities.

In other words, it's neat. It's clean. It works, for almost everyone. The one demographic missing out here are the teens – where the 14-year-old girls sit smack bang in the middle.

This is an edited extract from Being 14, Helping fierce teens become awesome women (Hachette) by Madonna King and released this week.

Madonna King is a Fairfax columnist.

Comments