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Lack Of Sleep Hurting Teenagers’ Alertness, Attainment And Increasing The Risk Of Depression

It’s not on the curriculum – but teaching young people why a healthy night's rest matters can be a real eye-opener

  • Lack Of Sleep Hurting Teenagers’ Alertness, Attainment And Increasing The Risk Of Depression

An epidemic of sleeplessness is spreading through teenagers’ bedrooms late into the night, through midnight text messages and group chats which stop the youngsters getting back to the land of nod as their brains stay alert for the next ping signalling the next chat instalment.

The fallout from this is not just lack of alertness in the class, which affects the ability to learn and has a seriously detrimental effect on exam performance- as if that weren’t serious enough - but also an increased risk of long term obesity and depression.

Lack of sleep increases the probability of teenage depression by four, according to researchers at the University of Texas Health Science Center in Houston, whose in-depth study tracked the habits of more than 4,000 adolescents over the course of a year.

And in a vicious circle those same teenagers are far more likely to suffer from insomnia also.

A second study, from the Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm, Sweden backs up the findings, with sleep deprivation as common as drugs misuse and school avoidance amongst adolescents suffering from depression or having suicidal thoughts.

The relationship between obesity and lack of sleep in teenage years is equally stark. Researchers from Columbia University and the University of North Carolina found teens who don’t get sufficient sleep at age 16 are 20 have a one in five greater chance of developing obesity by the time they reach 21.

It is thought that tiredness during the day can encourage teenagers to seek out food which is high in calories, similar to the cravings of someone with a hangover.

Waking hours

Part of the problem is that teenagers simply don’t recognise that it is just that: a problem.

Sleep Scotland, a charity which promotes healthy sleep in children and young people, surveyed almost 800 teenagers last year.

Of this group, half reported feeling tired or ‘dragged out’ almost every day but only one in five realised they just weren’t getting enough sleep.

Sleep experts recommend between eight and 10 hours every night for children of this age, with nine and a quarter being the optimum. However the average for school age teenagers falls between seven and seven and a half hours and all those missed hours are cumulative, you can’t catch up with a lie in at the weekend.

Another third of the Scottish teens reported that getting to sleep was the problem, more than likely due to the electronic stimulation they tend to have put their brains through in the evening.

Teenage years are especially fraught for sleep due to a number of internal pressures, such as the change in sleep patterns from preadolescence to adolescence while the brain needs lots of sleep for growing.

Coupled with this is the unfortunate coincidence that bedtime can become a battleground for teenagers fighting for their independence from parental control.

The problem is universal: figures from the United States record that the number of pupils who do get enough sleep has remained constantly at 31 percent since 2007, despite the best efforts of the education system to encourage more children into better sleeping habits.

While teachers may feel this is one area of their pupils’ lives that is sacrosanct and impossible for them have an impact on, they would be mistaken. Sir and Miss can’t tuck their charges up at a reasonable hour, but they can teach teenagers to value sleep, which in turn can turn them on to good sleep habits.

The first step is to help them recognise they have a problem.

Sleep Scotland has produced a questionnaire for pupils, asking such questions as ‘Do you find you are accident prone, tripping over a lot or dropping things?’ or ‘Do you find that you are bad tempered, cross and feel more angry in the afternoon?’

Keeping a sleep diary can also be an eye-opener, no pun intended. Writing down when they went to sleep and got up over a number of weeks can let the adolescent see how the number of hours of sleep missed can add up.

Lessons in sleep

In the classroom, the benefits of good sleep are apparent to the pupils; although the difficulty is the message remaining with the pupils until the evening, when the attractions of time with friends or electronic entertainment coupled with the pressures of homework or after school classes compress their free time until something has to give – often sleep.

Some schools deliver lessons in sleep as part of their Personal and Social Development programme to change the mindset that sleep is somehow less important than eating well or exercising.

First and second year pupils in Govan High School in Glasgow have a four to five week block of classroom based sleep lessons.

Every year a number of pupils are highlighted as having especially poor sleep patterns and members of staff who have been trained as sleep counsellors will visit the family home to work with the parents and the pupil to establish good sleep. The counsellors stress the importance of sleep hygiene; where adolescents’ bedrooms are free from computers, televisions or mobile phones.

The next step is to establish a sleep routine where pupils disengage from a screen at least an hour before going to bed and then might have a bath or milky drink to help them to drop off.

It is at this point that sleep counsellors have to step back and encourage parents to take responsibility for their children’s sleep.

“Sleep is fundamentally important, and is one of the biggest issues facing our pupils today, as for me, lack of it is the biggest barrier to learning,” says principal teacher Catriona MacDiarmid, who has been delivering the lessons for six years. “The majority of the pupils are not getting enough sleep with many suffering from inconsistent sleep patterns. They report they don’t get to sleep until after 12 on a school night then lie in until two at the weekend.

“At the most extreme, one pupil is getting by on just three or four hours a night as she doesn’t fall asleep until three in the morning,” Ms MacDiarmid continues.”They are turning night into day.”

In the rest of the UK, parents and teachers can contact Family Lives for help and support on a confidential help line, while The Sleep Council’s website gives advice on teenagers and sleep.

Gordon Cairns is an English and forest school teacher who works in a Language and Communication Resource.

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