Teenagers, sleep, and the global pandemic

Sleep is suffering across the world amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. The reasons for this disruption are many, but notable contributors include: 1) stress-related to potential illness and decreased job security; 2) less daytime sunlight exposure with the advent of physical distancing and home confinement; and, 3) altered daily routines that tend to push back bedtimes and waketimes.

We hear about the negative impacts of the pandemic on mental health around the globe. Sleep plays a critical role here. Acute sleep disturbances, such as insomnia, contribute to psychological stress, depression, and anxiety. The longer the sleep disorders persist, the greater the impact they have on mental and physical health. Consequently, the sleep of children and teens must not be ignored while the world restlessly awaits the resolution of this crisis.

Even before the pandemic, insomnia and delayed sleep-phase disorder were particularly prevalent among teens, but the coronavirus’s societal changes have exacerbated these issues.

With our pediatric patients getting back into the groove of school, whether in person or virtual, they ought to be in prime shape to thrive. In particular, teens need about 9 to 9.5 hours of high-quality sleep on a nightly basis to keep their minds sharp and their bodies healthy.

During our teenage years, most of us experienced a natural shift of our circadian rhythm that pushed back our internal bedtime to 11 p.m. or later. Couple this with early school start times, usually 7 to 8 a.m., and it becomes clear why so many of us were groggy during our first few classes in high school. Sleep time was also scrunched by the time demanded for extracurriculars, sports, jobs, etc.

So, keeping all of this information in mind, we naturally come to a question: What can we do to promote healthy sleep for our children, particularly teenagers, during and after the pandemic?

Here are a few quick tips:

1. Help them to buy-in to the idea. Most teens like to feel a sense of autonomy over their ideas and decisions. Drop hints and clues that will help your teen see how quality sleep will help achieve their goals. When they feel like it’s their own idea, teens are more likely to change their behavior.

2. Get some sun exposure early in the day to help keep their biological clock well-regulated.

3. No caffeine after lunchtime. Activating substances like caffeine will push back your teen’s natural bedtime.

4. Set a daily bedtime and wake time. Keeping a consistent routine plays a key role in maintaining good sleep hygiene.

5. No screens allowed in the bedroom at night. This includes cell phones, computers, tablets, televisions, etc. The bright lights from the screen and engaging with virtual content will keep your teen up late into the night.

6. Keep the bedroom cool and dark. Our core body temperature needs to drop somewhat to fall asleep, so cooler bedroom temperatures will be helpful. The experts argue for a temperature of around 65 degrees Fahrenheit.

7. Advocate for later school start times. The American Academy of Pediatrics has endorsed a school start time of 8:30 am or later for middle and high schools.

8. Know when to ask for help. If your teen is suffering from insomnia, despite trying the tips above and other tips for good sleep hygiene, then it may be worthwhile to speak to their primary care doctor about seeking the help of an expert.

Greg Rodden is a pediatrics resident.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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