Published Online: December 10, 2013
Published in Print: December 11, 2013, as Biology Explains Only Part Of Teenagers' Sleep Losses
Updated: December 11, 2013

Homework, Friends Help Shape Teenagers' Sleep Patterns

It's no secret that students' sleep habits deteriorate in puberty, but high schoolers may owe their sleep-encrusted eyes as much to social changes as biological ones.

A new University of Cincinnati study finds parents, peers, and school environment are more likely to predict whether a student sleeps well than developmental stage alone.

Previous research has shown adolescents have a natural drop in melatonin, a chemical that promotes sleepiness. That can make it harder for them to go to sleep and make them more vulnerable to other physical interruptions of their circadian sleep cycle, such as those created by melatonin-suppressing light. (‘Blue Light’ May Impair Students’ Sleep, Studies Say, Dec. 11, 2013)

"When adolescents have trouble sleeping, doctors often recommend prescription drugs to address the problem," said David J. Maume, the study author and a sociology professor at the university. "My research indicates that it's necessary to look beyond biology when seeking to understand and treat adolescents' sleep problems."

Role of Homework, Friends

The study, published in this month's issue of the Journal of Health and Social Behavior, tracked the sleep habits of 974 middle-class adolescents over three years, from the ages of 12 to 15. During that time, the teenagers' average sleep time dropped from more than nine hours each school night in 6th grade to less than eight hours each school night by age 15.

That's in line with the most recent study, in 2006, of adolescents by the Arlington, Va.-based National Sleep Foundation, which found adolescents' bedtime drags from 9:24 p.m. on average in 6th grade to after 11 p.m. by senior year, though their average school start-times remain at 7:30 a.m. The foundation considers nine hours a night to be "optimal" sleep for students from grades 6-12 and anything less than eight hours a night to be "insufficient."

Students who reported heavy loads of homework were significantly more likely to be sleep-deprived, particularly if the homework load had increased a lot from age 12 to 15. Moreover, students who used computers frequently on school nights were more likely to have shorter and more sporadic sleep.

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Friends could help or hurt students' sleep habits, Mr. Maume also found. Students who reported a strong attachment to their schools and positive relationships with friends had longer and less disrupted sleep.

"Teens who have prosocial friends tend to behave in prosocial ways, which includes taking care of one's health by getting proper sleep," he said.

However, students who reported stressful relationships with friends or disengagement at school had worse sleep habits. In particular, girls were more likely than boys to report sleep problems related to "worrying about homework, friends, or family."

Students whose parents remained closely involved and kept set bedtimes as students got older had longer and less disrupted sleep.

Vol. 33, Issue 14, Pages 20-21, 25

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