Researchers at the Golden Bear Sleep & Mood Research Clinic at UC Berkeley recently found that teenagers who go to sleep later are more likely to face emotional and academic problems down the road than their earlier-sleeping peers.
The longitudinal study published online in the Nov. 10 issue of the Journal of Adolescent Health consisted of data from a nationally representative sample of 2,700 U.S. adolescents, 30 percent of whom reported bedtimes later than 11:30 p.m. on weeknights and later than 1:30 a.m. in the summer during their middle and high school careers.
Upon graduating from high school, students with later school-year bedtimes were found to have lower GPAs and higher susceptibility to emotional problems than those who slept earlier. Differences in summer sleep schedules did not appear to relate significantly with levels of academic achievement, but researchers did note a correlation between later summer sleep times and emotional problems faced in young adulthood.
UC Berkeley graduate student and lead researcher on the study Lauren Asarnow said that the findings reveal a previously unexplored phenomenon that correlates bedtimes, rather than hours slept, with variations in academic and emotional capacity.
“To our knowledge, this is the first time that we have found a link between bedtime and academic and emotional problems in the long term,” Asarnow said. “Kids that are going to bed late now are struggling academically and emotionally six years later.”
The study analyzed data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, which has monitored the behaviors and influencers of adolescents since 1994. Researchers focused on three developmental stages of adolescence — the onset of puberty, the year following and young adulthood — to get a better idea of the long-term emotional and academic adversities faced by teenage night-owls.
“The good news is that we can change sleep behavior with the right support,” Asarnow said. “Bedtimes are adaptable. We have a program at the Sleep and Mood Research Clinic that is helping teens get to bed early.”
The program, “Teen Sleep Improvement Study,” is designed to test whether sleep coaching sessions can help young people who experience trouble sleeping at night, difficulty waking up or sleepiness during the day improve their sleeping habits. Adolescents who partake in this study receive six treatment sessions with highly-trained sleep coaches and are asked to keep sleep diaries and wear watches that track when they are asleep and awake.
According to Asarnow, the next relevant question for researchers becomes how to prevent the phenomenon of teenage sleep-deprivation altogether. Two possible ways to tackle this issue are for teens to change their habits or for schools to acknowledge and accommodate their students’ later sleep times.
“This study provides further evidence for the body of research that is supporting a movement to delay school start times,” Lauren said. “There is a debate about delaying school start times. We are putting our teens at a disadvantage by asking them to perform cognitively early in the morning when they are not alert.”
One objection to the delay of school start times is that students who already get to bed late would simply take advantage of a later start time by sleeping even later. In this case, the fundamental behavioral tendency would not change, suggesting the need for an alternative and unified effort to keep teens healthy, happy and alert.
A version of this story appeared on page 13 of Wednesday, January 8, 2014’s print edition of the Daily Nexus.