Student Well-Being

Sleep Helps Teens Cope With Stress; Instances of Discrimination, Study Finds

By Christina A. Samuels — March 03, 2020 2 min read
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Teens who have a decent night’s sleep are better equipped to deal with stress the next day, including seeking out support from friends and engaging in active problem solving rather than brooding.

The findings, based on tracking the activity and sleep patterns of around 250 high school freshmen in New York City, is yet more evidence of the importance of adequate sleep to overall well-being.

And this study also offers insight into the impact of racial and ethnic discrimination on teens: all the students involved were Asian, black, or Latino, and they were asked to track instances they felt they were subject to discrimination and their well-being in the aftermath of those events.

The daily frequency of such discrimination was low, as reported by the students in this study. But other research has shown that the impact of such events is pervasive, affecting youth mentally, educationally, and behaviorally. For those students, tracking the potential benefits of sleep as a coping mechanism is critical, said Yijie Wing, the lead researcher of the study and an assistant professor of human development and family studies at Michigan State University.

The Importance of Sleep for Teens

In adolescents, sleep tends to get less attention from parents, compared to all the information and advice centered on “sleep-training” babies and younger children. Adolescents should get eight hours of sleep each night, but on average are getting only six to seven hours. The teenagers in this study slept a little less than 7 hours during weekdays, and about 8 hours on weekends.

Interspersed in the average, however, were some outliers that anyone familiar with teenagers might recognize: a few of the study subjects slept for less than two hours on weeknights, and on days when they weren’t in school, they slept for more than 12 hours. Other teens would wake up in the middle of the night for a few hours, then crash for an hour before they needed to wake up for school.

During the two weeks the students were tracked, they wore watches to monitor their activity. They were also asked to report on their well-being, and any incidents of discrimination.

On days when the teens had longer and higher-quality sleep, they reported being more likely to report after an incident of racial or ethnic discrimination that they “tried to find something good in the situation or something I had learned,” “reminded myself that this feeling would go away,” or “thought of a way to make my problem better.”

The study also found that teens in the study were more likely to look to their peers for support, rather than their parents. Wang suggested that may be because peers may be witnesses to whatever events occurred, and can provide immediate backup and comfort.

Students were also less likely to ruminate on problems in general if they had better sleep the night before.

For educators and parents, one takeaway is to let teens know just how important sleep is, Wang said, and to create an environment that promotes good “sleep hygiene,” such as banning electronics from bedrooms, and setting regular bedtime and wake-up times.

“It is a very exciting direction of research,” Wang said. “We suspect that sleep is probably going to be helping kids navigate all sorts of stresses, because of how powerful it is.”

The study, “Sleep Facilitates Coping: Moderated Mediation of Daily Sleep, Ethnic/Racial Discrimination, Stress Responses, and Adolescent Well‐Being,” was published in the journal Child Development.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Rules for Engagement blog.