Sleep deprivation can be summed up as a chronic lack of adequate sleep. Too little sleep—even one hour less a night—develops over time into a sleep debt. This sleep debt can build up and is only wiped out when enough sleep is obtained. And sleeping more on weekends may not completely erase the debt. Switching back and forth from late hours on weekends to early hours on weekdays may even worsen the problem.
If sleep debt becomes too great, it causes sleepiness and can negatively affect performance, concentration, reaction time, memory, mood, and behavior control. A teen’s physical growth can even be affected by a chronic lack of sleep, since growth hormone is most active during sleep.
Teens need 8-10 hours of sleep per night, yet on average get around 7 hours. Not getting enough sleep is only part of the problem, as sleep patterns also change during adolescence. Changes related to puberty cause the sleep hormone melatonin to be released later in the day, which alters the circadian rhythms and, in turn, the sleep-wake cycle. The result is teens fall asleep later and wake up later. While this altered schedule is recognized as a normal part of puberty, it has not changed the fact that many middle and high schools have early start times, cutting into possible sleep time.
One of the most troubling effects of sleep deprivation is a drop in memory and attention, making learning more difficult and negatively impacting school performance.
One study looked at the sleep habits of 3,120 high school students. Researchers compared sleep habits to mood, school performance, and behavior. They found that struggling students went to bed 40 minutes later and had 25 fewer minutes of sleep than the students earning better grades. The students who got less sleep also experienced increased sleepiness during the day, depressed mood, and behavior problems. Even this small difference in sleep seemed to affect the way adolescents functioned during the day.
About one third of children and teens aged 2-19 years are either overweight or obese, which may lead to serious consequences, like a shortened life expectancy in adulthood. Studies have shown that shorter sleep duration in children and teens increased the risk of them being overweight and obese. Studies have also found that children who try get catch up sleep on the weekends and holidays may actually be able to reduce their risk for becoming overweight or obese.
Too little sleep can also contribute to a negative self-image and depression. One study looked at the rate of depression among those with various sleep disorders. While previous studies centered on sleep apnea and narcolepsy, the researchers broadened their study to include insomnia, inadequate-sleep-and-wake hygiene, and restless leg syndrome.
The results showed a high rate of depression in people with sleep disorders. Over half of the 917 study participants were found to have some form of depression, while 3.5% experienced a moderate or severe form of depression. The researchers recommended that sleep deprived people should routinely be evaluated for depression.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration attributes 100,000 crashes annually to drowsy drivers. Sleepiness and driving are a lethal combination because of slower reaction times, decreased attention, and a slower rate of information processing. Young drivers, especially those 16-29 years old, are among the highest at risk for drowsy driving.
In one study, driving performance of sleep-deprived subjects was compared to those who were alcohol impaired. Sixty-four participants were tested. Some were partially deprived of sleep, receiving only 4 hours of sleep the night before testing, while others received no sleep the night before testing. The rest were given alcohol to induce a blood level of 0.07%. All participants were then tested during 2 hours of simulated driving. Two groups, the alcohol group and the no-sleep group did poorly when trying to stay in the lane while driving, and the researchers termed their driving safety as critical. The partially sleep-deprived group experienced a decline but was categorized as non-critical.
Getting enough sleep is more than a good idea. It restores us both physically and mentally. If your teen is irritable, has difficulty waking, or falls asleep spontaneously, sleep deprivation may be the culprit. Have your teen try the following steps to create a balance between sleep and a busy calendar:
Also, you can be a role model for your teen by having good sleep habits of your own.
Kid's Health—Nemours Foundation
National Sleep Foundation
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Published January 14, 2015. Accessed February 5, 2015.
Last reviewed November 2017 by EBSCO Medical Review Board
Michael Woods, MD, FAAP
Last Updated: 12/14/2015