The research findings are telling, indisputable and mounting.
“According to data from the Centers for Disease Control, and Prevention, about 72% of teenagers regularly do not get enough sleep,” says one of the world’s leading experts on the subject. “What we know about teenagers sleep is that they are one of the most vulnerable groups and high risk group for sleep deprivation in our society.”
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Welcome to Where Parents Talk. I’m Lianne Castelino. Our guest today is a mom of two teens asleep scientist, award winning researcher whose work has been supported by the National Institutes of Health and the US Department of Defense. She’s also an author, Dr. Wendy troxel, is a senior behavioral and social scientist at RAND Corporation, a not for profit organization. She is recognized internationally as an expert in sleep. She’s also a practicing clinical psychologist, and an adjunct faculty member at the University of Pittsburgh, and the University of Utah. Dr. Troxel joins us today from Park City, Utah. Thank you so much for being here.
Thanks so much for having me. It’s a real pleasure to be with you today.
Dr. Troxel, so much to talk to you about. But I wanted to start first with what the science is saying about teenagers and sleep young adults and sleep, and also what concerns you most about the patterns and trends that you are seeing.
What we know about teenagers sleep is that they are one of the most vulnerable groups and high risk group for sleep deprivation in our society. So according to data from the Centers for Disease Control, and Prevention, about 72% of teenagers regularly do not get enough sleep. And just to mention, the adequate or recommended sleep duration for teenagers is between eight to 10 hours of sleep. Now, the covid 19 pandemic has introduced some sort of new and somewhat surprising changes to all of our sleep patterns, including our teenagers. What we’ve seen from the data that’s out so far is that teenagers as well as adults, during the covid 19 pandemic, have seen an uptick in poor sleep quality and insomnia related problems. So that might be difficulty falling asleep, or difficulty staying asleep or just poor unrefreshing sleep. And this is likely due to the stress that we’ve been experiencing as a result of living under these very often threatening and scary times. But at the same time that we’ve seen this uptick in poor sleep quality, the one perhaps silver lining of the pandemic has been, we’re actually seeing that teenagers and adults are sleeping more. And that’s largely due to the fact that our typical social obligations like having to, you know, go off to work or in teenagers lives go to early school schools that start too early. With the removal of those start times when kids were mostly doing remote learning last year, we saw that many teenagers were getting upwards of two hours more sleep. So on the one hand, that’s a good thing. But on the other hand, the fact that teenagers like all of us are experiencing a lot of stress during these uncertain times. And that’s being manifested in their sleep. That’s really important for us to be mindful of given that we know that sleep is vitally important for so many aspects of health and functioning, including teens mental health and well being.
Let’s break that down that last point of of those aspects that you refer to. And I’d like to start by asking you to kind of paint a picture for us as to the main differences between a teenager’s sleep patterns habits, versus and adults.
Sure, so the teenage years represent this really unique stage of development. With regards to sleep wake patterns, around the time of puberty, teenagers experience a delay in their biological clocks, otherwise known as their circadian rhythms by about two hours. And this is primarily driven by a delay in the release of the hormone melatonin, which is known as the hormone of darkness. What melatonin does is it signals to the brain that it’s time for sleep be that it’s time to go to you know that it’s sleep onset time, teenagers experienced that release melatonin about two hours later than adults or younger children. That means that biologically teenagers are predisposed to stay awake later, because their brains haven’t sent that signal yet that it’s time for sleep. They’re also predisposed to sleep in later. So we have the tendency to really disparage our teenagers and I’m very protective of teenagers. I have two of my own. And you know, I think being a teenager is rough in a number of ways. And we often think about teenagers as being sort of lazy and irritable and you know, they’re so difficult to wake up in the morning. But it’s so important to for parents to realize that a lot of this is out of their control. It truly is a biologically based phenomenon, that, you know, their bodies are telling them to stay awake later, and sleeping later. So when you have to, like physically shake your child to wake them up in the morning, it’s really not just because, you know, they’re, you know, lazy or willful, willful or being disobedient, it’s truly that their brains are craving that sleep, particularly in those early morning hours, when we’re sort of robbing them of their sleep when they have to go off to school. You know, and it is such a pain point that those of us who have teens live with, right and, and you’re trying to find that balance between being that authoritative parent that’s really ranting and raving about getting to bed and turning off devices and, you know, getting off the phone, whatever it is, and being understanding of all the things that you just described.
So what are some actionable tactics and strategies that parents could look at, you know, adopting in their own homes, to facilitate better sleep habits in their teens and young adults?
Okay, so first of all, recognizing that part of this is due to their biology, I think that kind of compassion and understanding and sharing that with your team is really important to say, Honey, I know this is really hard for you to go to bed at a reasonable time, and wake up when you have to go to school, but you know, school is your job. And unfortunately, schools start very early. So as much as it’s not your fault, that it’s hard for you to, you know, go to bed earlier and early. We’ve got to enforce some rules in the home to support you in this process. So kind of recognizing that part of this is their biology, I think that that kind of creates a point of connection. So that’s point one. Secondly, in terms of what you can do in your home, certainly creating healthy sleep patterns, starting with keeping a relatively consistent bedtime, and wake time, seven days a week. And I know those weekend, you know, sleeping in can be kind of delicious, and everybody craves it, is actually can really upset our circadian rhythms, our brains and our bodies function best when we follow relatively predictable routines. And a large part of that is driven by when we go to bed and when we wake up in the morning. Now for teenagers, I recommend that parents tried to keep your teens on a schedule where they’re where their wakeup times on the weekend, are about with in a two hour window of their wakeup times during the week. I know that sounds rough, but that kind of consistency will really help support their sleep throughout the week. The second thing is to keep technology out of the bedroom, there is no place for technology in the bedroom. It has profound negative consequences for our sleep, both because of the light exposure emitted from our devices, as well as the stimulating content that kids are consuming from their devices. You know, it’s very easy to get really emotionally activated right before bedtime, if you’re reading about the latest gossip, or reading some horrible news that happens in our world today. So keeping technology out of bed, bedroom, and make that a rule for the entire family, because our teenagers are looking to us as parents as role models. So if you bring technology into the bedroom, your teenagers are likely going to do to do the same. I recommend families have a family charging space in a neutral territory in the house, no one’s bedroom, where you disconnect, recharge your phones overnight, while you allow your brains and your bodies to recharge with healthy sleep overnight without the interruption of our phones. We did study actually, that showed that 70% of teens received incoming text messages between the hours of 10pm and 6am. Now tell me that’s not going to profoundly impact their sleep when they’ve got these notifications going off throughout the night. Another final meant to families outside of the home is to advocate and encourage your school districts to heat the science and you know, a follow healthy school start times which typically means start times no earlier than 8:30am for adolescence.
That is such a huge topic and I know there’s many jurisdictions in the United States. I’m not as sure about Canada yet where this is a front burner issue.
Just because you brought it up where is that overall in the in the discourse in the US currently?
Well, it continues to be a hotly debated issue and school district and school districts around the country. It is not debated among scientists. However, the scientific evidence is clear. Later school start times are healthier for adolescents, because they’re more aligned with adolescence biologically driven, later bedtimes and wake up times. So there is robust and consistent evidence showing that schools that have later start times in schools were start times are later, teens get more sleep. And they also show improvements in other important domains and functioning, including academic functioning, and mental health and well being. What’s interesting is during COVID, and the stay at home orders, as I mentioned, we actually did see this sort of natural experiment where, you know, virtually all US students, at least for some time, were going to school remotely. And so they didn’t have these early school start times. And we’re showing across multiple studies that teenagers started getting up to two hours more sleep. So it’s further evidence that removing early school start times allows teens the opportunity to get the sleep they need. And we’re seeing changes happen in districts across the US both big and small. And actually, in the state of California, they recently
passed a mandate that in the year 2022, middle and high middle schools will have to start in the state of California, no earlier than 8am. and high schools will start no earlier than 8:30am. So that’s a state level. That sort of mandate, which is the first of its kind in the US. I don’t know exactly what the start times are in Canada. But just for context, in the US, the average school start time is around 8:03am, meaning that many schools start far earlier than that, including my own children’s, which starts at 7:35am. Wow, oh, my goodness, let me ask you about.
You know, you’ve painted a picture of what’s happening in the body, what during sleep and why that’s important, why adolescence, more than probably any other aspect of of life, except for probably baby’s needs need a certain amount of sleep. But I want to ask you about the adverse effects of chronic sleep deprivation, because just anecdotally, as a non sleep researcher, it just seems to me that we’re very quick as a society to sacrifice sleep at certainly as adults. And then I’m not sure, you know, we might see some of the pitfalls in our kids and try to encourage better behavior there. But we’re not practicing it ourselves. So could you paint a picture of the adverse health effects that chronic sleep deprivation can produce?
Absolutely. And you’re right, that unfortunately, we have this pervasive belief in our society. And it does trickle down to our youth, believe me, our children and our adolescence are picking up on this idea that we perpetuate as adults, that sleep is, you know, the thing you do when you’ve finished everything else, when everything else is accomplished, then you can sleep and so we end up sacrificing it regularly. We have you know, sayings in our culture’s sleep when you’re dead sleep is for the week. And this perpetuates that idea that sleep is some sort of dead space where nothing happens. Well, that is so not true. In fact, sleep is a highly dynamic and active state, we’re in fact, parts of the brain are more active during sleep than during wakefulness. And because of this specific functions that sleep plays, and that we have certain parts of the brain, for instance, that are more active, you know, while sleeping versus awake. That means if you sacrifice those functions, you set yourself up for risk up for a variety of mental and physical health consequences. This ranges from increased risk for mental health disorders, including depression, anxiety and substance use disorders. Clearly a big concern among parents of teenagers as adolescence is also a time of increased risk taking behaviors. Chronic sleep loss also increases risk for physical health problems, including obesity, heart disease, and diabetes. We typically think of these things as being sort of adult disorders. But we’re seeing these issues of adulthood these chronic health conditions are emerged earlier and earlier in life and really setting the stage for these chronic health conditions.
Sleep deprivation being closely tied with these obesity related health problems. And finally, we know that sleep is absolutely vital for our cognitive functioning, that impacts so sleep loss impacts our ability to learn our memory, and also our sort of long term cognitive functioning, including our risk for damage and other signs of cognitive decline. And that’s again, because important things are happening in the brain at night, while we’re sleeping.
You recently published your first book called sharing the covers. And, you know, I’d like to know what your sort of top three takeaways you want readers to leave with, because it really has a lot to do with what you’ve just described, which is role modeling the behavior, if you are a parent in order for your child to have a chance to, you know, to cultivate a solid sleep habits. So could you tell us what are those three takeaways or, you know, top takeaways you want people to leave with your new book?
Yeah, so I mean, actually, it’s a perfect segue, because I just talked to you about many of the individual consequences of sleep loss. But what my book really highlights, because this has been a major focus of my work, is that when you’re sleep deprived, the consequences, you know, are not just to the individual. Sleep deprivation also affects those around us, there are also significant interpersonal consequences of sleep loss. And because most adults sleep with a partner, and most sleep research has tended to view sleep only from the perspective of individual, my book is the first to really pull together all of the research and clinical experience that I have, and my colleagues have on the coupled nature of sleep. So we know for one, that there’s this bidirectional relationship between how well we sleep and how well we behave in our in our relationships. And I think this makes a sort of intuitive sense to most people, that when you’re poorly slept, you know, you get kind of irritable The next day, and who are you most likely to take that out on, but your partner, but there can be this vicious cycle, that poor sleep leads to poor relationships, having a conflict in your relationship can also disrupt your sleep. So my book covers, you know, that topic, and importantly, how to break break that vicious cycle to support both healthy sleep and healthy relationships. I also want families to think about the role that sleep plays, again, both in the health of their, you know, couple relationship, but also how that transmits to the rest of the family. And believe me, when you know, you have children, it’s not just during the infancy years that parents sleep is disrupted. As parents of teenagers, our sleep can also be disrupted as we, you know, worry, you know, when our young teenage drivers going to come home. And so the book also covers, you know, how those how couples can negotiate those issues. The final point is just to really highlight that sleep occupies about 1/3 of our lives. for couples, that’s a major part of their couples existence. And it’s a really major part of families sort of functioning together. And it’s time that we start to look at sleep in its social context, and to understand how our sleep is affecting our relationships, and vice versa.
It really is such an important point. Because when you pull back that lens from the individual, as you describe, to more than just yourself, and the impact of sleep or lack thereof, is having on not just you but everybody around you it really changes a lot in terms of potentially your approach, how you view it moving forward. It’s a very important point. Finally, Dr. Troxel, I wanted to ask you, Arianna, Huffington, co-founder of the Huffington Post and CEO of Thrive global, has described you as being quote on the front lines of the sleep revolution. I’m curious what in your estimation, as somebody who has been on the front lines of sleep research globally for 15 plus years, what does the sleep revolution entail for you?
Sleep revolution entails, the implicit knowledge amongst all of us that sleep is a vital pillar of health, as important as healthy diet and physical activity. That healthy sleep is what allows us to be healthy, highly productive, well functioning people, rather than it being this thing that we do you know, when everything else is done. So I really want to encourage both in people’s individual lives and in their family lives and also to have public policy that supports this vital pillar of health, which is our ability to get adequate sleep quality and adequate sleep to healthy sleep quality and adequate sleep duration.
I would be remiss Dr. Troxel if I didn’t ask you what is your daily sleep pattern, what is your daily sleep goal as both a sleep researcher as a mother and all the other things that you do?
Well, yeah, so for myself, I, you know, follow a very consistent schedule, I’m sort of at 10pm to 6am kind of gal. And I am pretty rigid about that. And you know, because I know that when I do so, my sleep quality is better, like everybody during the pandemic, I definitely started to stay awake a little bit later. And I would kind of binge watch on Netflix, because we just had such more fluid routines. But I found, you know that, in fact, while I was doing that, my sleep quality started to suffer. Because like I said, our brains and our bodies function best and we sleep best when we follow fairly consistent sleep wake schedules. So I try to stick in that range. And again, I really focus on what kind of quality sleep I’m getting, as opposed to really focusing too much on a magic number. Yes, I do allow for eight hours of sleep as a non negotiable. But I also really want to look at all the behaviors that I do in my life, including regularly engaging in exercise following a consistent sleep wake schedule, because the quality is also so important.
Wonderful perspective and insight Dr. Wendy troxel sleep scientists, mom of two author and researcher, thank you so much for your time today.
Oh, it’s been such a pleasure. Thank you so much for having me.
Dr. Wendy Troxel, sleep scientist, award-winning researcher, author and mom of two adds, “…the adequate or recommended sleep duration for teenagers is between eight to 10 hours of sleep.”
During a video interview with Lianne Castelino of Where Parents Talk, Dr. Troxel, who is described by Arianna Huffington of the Huffington Post and Thrive Global as being “on the front lines of the sleep revolution” discussed many aspects of sleep including:
- scientific findings on optimal sleep and a lack of sleep
- the impact of chronic sleep deprivation on adolescents and adults
- the important biological and physiological processes taking place during sleep
- the difference between sleep in a teen and an adult
- why sleep is a key pillar of health
- actionable tactics for parents to support better sleep health and sleep hygiene in their children
- the myriad physical, mental and psychological side-effects of poor sleep routines
- the correlation between early school start times and teenagers’ sleep patterns
- how an individual’s poor sleep patterns can impact a household
- her first book entitled, Sharing the Covers, which explores relationships and sleep
“We have certain parts of the brain, for instance, that are more active, while sleeping versus awake,” Dr. Troxel continues.
“That means if you sacrifice those functions, you set yourself up for risk up for a variety of mental and physical health consequences.”
“This ranges from increased risk for mental health disorders, including depression, anxiety and substance use disorders. Clearly a big concern among parents of teenagers as adolescence is also a time of increased risk-taking behaviours. Chronic sleep loss also increases risk for physical health problems, including obesity, heart disease, and diabetes. We typically think of these things as being sort of adult disorders. But we’re seeing these issues of adulthood these chronic health conditions are emerged earlier and earlier in life and really setting the stage for these chronic health conditions.”
Based in Park City, Utah, Dr. Troxel is a mother of two teens herself. She is also a senior behavioural and social scientist at RAND Corporation a not-for-profit organization. She understands first-hand the challenges parents of teens in particular face in helping their kids get enough sleep.
“Biologically, teenagers are predisposed to stay awake later, because their brains haven’t sent that signal yet that it’s time for sleep,” says Dr. Troxel. “They’re also predisposed to sleep in later. So we have the tendency to really disparage our teenagers and I’m very protective of teenagers. I have two of my own. I think being a teenager is rough in a number of ways.
And we often think about teenagers as being sort of lazy and irritable and they’re so difficult to wake up in the morning. But it’s so important to for parents to realize that a lot of this is out of their control. It truly is a biologically based phenomenon, that their bodies are telling them to stay awake later, and sleeping later.”
An adjunct professor at the University of Pittsburgh and the University of Utah, Dr. Troxel provides several strategies and pointers to help parents and children improve, cultivate and sustain more healthy sleep routines — critically important to establish as kids return to school.
She also discusses her first book, Sharing the Covers, which delves into adult sleep habits and the impact of relationships on optimal sleep hygiene.
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