Student Well-Being

Social, School Relationships Can Affect Teenagers’ Sleep Habits

By Sarah D. Sparks — December 05, 2013 2 min read
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It’s no secret that students’ sleep habits deteriorate in puberty, but high school students may owe their sandy 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 age alone.

Previous research has shown adolescents have a natural drop in melatonin, a chemical that promotes sleepiness. This 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 melatonin-suppressing light.

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

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 from the ages of 12 to 15. During that time, the teens’ average sleep 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 2006 study of adolescents by the Arlington, Va.-based National Sleep Foundation, which found adolescents’ bed time 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 6th through 12th grades, and considers 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 significantly from age 12 to age 15. Moreover, students who used computers frequently on school nights were more likely to have shorter and more sporadic sleep.

Friends could help or hurt students’ sleep habits. Mr. Maume found. Students who reported a strong attachment to their schools and positive relationships with friends had longer and less disrupted sleep. “Teens who have pro-social friends tend to behave in pro-social 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 also 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 continued to set bedtimes as students got older had longer and less disrupted sleep.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.