My 16-year-old son didn't sleep through the night consistently until he was 3, and even now I often hear him stomping through the kitchen in the middle of the night in search of food. His insomnia typically gets worse at this time of the year when school starts.
Sleep disturbance is common in adolescents, according to recent research, with symptoms of insomnia affecting from one-quarter to one-half of all teens. While many physical and psychological issues can contribute to insomnia, there is a little information as to the role poor sleep hygiene may play.
As the recent sleep survey from the Consumer Reports National Research Center (conducted in April 2008) pointed out, there are four approaches to sleep often advised by sleep experts:
- Use the bedroom primarily for sleep, not as an all-purpose room where one watches television, uses the computer, reads, or eats meals.
- Keep the bedroom dark at bedtime.
- Keep the bedroom quiet at bedtime.
- Keep pets and children off the bed at bedtime.
Indeed, most adult respondents did keep their bedrooms dark and quiet at bedtime. On a typical night in the preceding month, 84 percent of respondents told us their bedroom was kept dark at bedtime, and 67 percent stated that their bedroom was completely quiet. Overall, 63 percent indicated their rooms were both dark and quiet at bedtime.
But the high-tech bedrooms of many teenagers, including my son’s, are anything but dark and quiet. He often goes to sleep listening to his iPod, and receives (and probably sends) text messages late into the night. In fact, this seems to be typical teenage behavior. A United Kingdom Sleep Council survey last year of 1,000 12- to 16-year-olds in Britain found that almost a quarter of adolescents admitted to falling asleep more than once a week while watching TV, listening to music, or with their computers still on. Almost all those surveyed said they had a phone, music system, or television in their bedroom and two-thirds had all three. And one-fifth of teenage boys admitted that their quality of sleep was affected by leaving on the TV, video games, or computer.
Similarly, in a 2006 National Sleep Foundation poll, 97 percent of U.S. teens said they had at least one electronic item, such as a television, computer, phone, or music device, in their bedroom. On average, sixth-graders reported having more than two electronic gadgets in their room, while high-school seniors said they had four. It is perhaps no wonder that those with four or more such items were twice as likely to fall asleep in school or while doing homework.
But it’s not just fatigue that's at stake. A study of 238 13- to 16-year-olds from the journal Circulation published last month found that poor sleep quality was associated with elevated blood pressure in otherwise healthy adolescents. Specifically, teens with poor sleep quality were 3.5 times as likely to be prehypertensive or hypertensive.
So it may be time to have a serious sleep talk with our kids. While it's hard to tell most teenagers what's good for their health, it may be helpful to just give them the facts. And it probably doesn't hurt to start while they're young. My 12-year old, a sound sleeper, keeps his computer and video games in the study, where I'm hoping they'll stay.
—Orly Avitzur, M.D., medical adviser to Consumers Union