Perchance to dream

Teens actually need more sleep than the average eight- or nine-year-old.

Some hard-line experts recommend banishing computers, cellphones, TVs and video games from a teen’s room. (photo credit: SACRAMENTO BEE/MCT)
Some hard-line experts recommend banishing computers, cellphones, TVs and video games from a teen’s room.
(photo credit: SACRAMENTO BEE/MCT)
‘This generation of teenagers is probably the most sleep-deprived that the world has ever seen, and we don’t know what the repercussions will be,” says pediatrician Judith Owens, director of sleep medicine at Children’s National Medical Center in Washington.
“It’s not just a matter of what happens today or tomorrow, but 10, 20, 30 years down the line. What are we doing to our kids by not really enforcing sleep?” Sleep is a topic relevant to everyone, but is an especially important issue in reference to teenagers.
Teens are still in a period of rapid growth, which can produce fatigue; they are increasingly falling asleep in class, at risk for driving accidents and affected in numerous negative ways due to sleep deficiency.
According to US statistics, some 80,000 traffic accidents occur annually as a result of drivers falling asleep at the wheel – and half of these are teen drivers.
Most sleep researchers suggest that teens need nine to 10 hours of sleep a night. It may sound surprising, but they actually need more sleep than the average eight-or nine-year-old – though we doubt there are many, if any, households where older children go to sleep before their younger siblings. But as parents know only too well, we are lucky if our teens get the eight hours of sleep a night that is recommended for mature adults.
Moreover, as role models, many parents are probably doing a poor job themselves – since most of us do not get our recommended seven to eight hours. While medical experts such as international natural health guru Andrew Weil unanimously agree that sufficient sleep is a cornerstone of good health, most of us fail to follow his regime. He and others note that there are just too many distractions in modern life.
A very specific distraction in recent years is – you guessed it – social media. The computer, smartphones, Facebook and Twitter are difficult to monitor because they usually are used in a kid’s bedroom during evening hours. Some hard-line experts actually recommend taking away technology in the evening, and banishing computers, cellphones, TVs and video games from a teen’s room. But most of us would consider this an overly tough tactic.
The lure of texting in particular tempts teens to stay awake when they should be sleeping. Ideally, screens should be shut off at least one hour before bedtime; the blue light from the screen stimulates teen brains and helps keep them awake.
What is worse, many teens refuse to turn off their cellphones at night because they are afraid of “missing” something. This means that even if they do go to bed at a reasonable hour, it is entirely possible their sleep will be interrupted by an urgent phone call or SMS. In fact, sleep interruption and fragmentation can be more problematic than the issue of total sleep hours, because such disturbances interfere with the natural sleep cycle.
Very simply, the sleep cycle consists of two major states: Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep and non- REM sleep. The sleep cycle is roughly 90 minutes in duration, alternating between these two states of consciousness. Dreaming occurs during the REM state, and decades of sleep research have documented the importance of dreaming for our overall health and emotional stability. Unfortunately, interruptions in this sleep cycle and the use of medications, drugs and alcohol can limit or alter our REM sleep.
All of us also have a natural sleep cycle or internal clock, known to scientists as circadian rhythms.
This internal clock regulates things such as our body temperature and appetite, as well as our sleep cycle. In adults and children, normal circadian rhythms cause people to feel sleepy around 8 or 9 p.m. But as occurs with many other areas related to the body, puberty disrupts these patterns. As a result, many teenagers have an internal clock that keeps them wide awake until 11 p.m. or later.
As such, the problem of nighttime teen sleep resistance actually has a physiological basis. This, combined with a multitude of modern distractions, means that millions of teenagers stay up late into the night despite early-morning obligations. In fact, acknowledgment of this fact has caused some schools in America to avoid early-morning classes at both the high school and university level.
One tactic for encouraging teens to get their ZZZs is to inform them about some of the specific side effects of sleep deficiency. Sleep deprivation clearly effects our mental health, specifically concentration and memory. When it comes to exams, cramming may sometimes work, but we really need good REM sleep to remember what we have been studying for longer than a few days.
Sleep deprivation also causes irritability and depression, and has very specific effects on our physical health including the way we look – a very important issue for teens. For example, acne is affected by sleep in several ways. Sleep deprivation encourages inflammation, insulin resistance and hormone flow; all of these factors predispose teens to facial blemishes.
Furthermore, obesity is directly linked to sleep deficiency. When you are sleep-deprived, your body decreases production of leptin, the hormone that tells your brain you are satiated. Hence, appetite is increased.
Too little sleep also impacts levels of thyroid and stress hormones, which can in turn affect your memory, immune system, heart, metabolism and much more. Over time, lack of sleep can even lead to high blood sugar levels and an increased risk of diabetes.
THE MORAL of the story? Since we will all spend almost one-third of our lives sleeping, it is just plain common sense to learn something about it.
According to the UCLA Sleep Disorders Center, we are advised to inform teens about the significance of sleep. First and foremost, they need to understand that sleep is not a waste of time. Second, they must learn to appreciate the importance of the quality of sleep, and specifically the nature of the sleep cycle as it relates to dreaming.
And while we are at it, why not talk to our kids about their dreams at the breakfast table? Freud tells us that “a dream uninterpreted is like an unread letter.” Discussing dreams is a great way to facilitate parent/child communication. And since many teen dreams are related to sex, this routine provides a useful opening to another important parenting topic.
Stay tuned for our next column on teen sexuality. 
Tracey Shipley is a teen, parent and young adult counseling specialist;, Dr. Judith Posner is a social scientist, writer and researcher.
Links – The UCLA Sleep Disorders Center – A radical view on the nature and history of sleep russell-foster-at-tedglobal-2013/ – A video on sleep