There has been a great deal of attention paid recently to the issue of teen sleep deprivation. The American Academy of Pediatrics has issued a statement urging schools to move their start time to a later point in the morning to allow for more sleep, and experts have pointed to everything from biological factors to increasing use of technology for the problem. But a new study has revealed that the blame for the problem may lie elsewhere. The research, which was published in this month’s issue of the journal Pediatrics, found that the sleep deprivation teens are experiencing is part of a trend that has developed over the past twenty years rather than a new development.
According to Katherine Keyes, an assistant professor of epidemiology at Columbia University, the
adolescent population’s sleep quantity has been diminishing steadily. She looked at survey data that had been collected from over 250,000 middle and high school students between the years 1991 and 2010. The students came from both public and private schools and were in the eight tenth and twelfth grades, with each having been asked how often they slept a minimum of seven hours per night and how often they slept less than they should. She concluded that though a big part of why teens were sleeping less had to do with the fact that they biologically required less sleep than they had when they were younger, but also that there was a period effect that impacted all of them. What was surprising was that this was true twenty years ago as well as today, indicating that it was not attributable to the use of cell phones, tablets and other digital devices. “I thought we would see decreases in sleep in more recent years, because so much has been written about teens being at risk with technologies that adversely affect the sleep health of this population,” she said.” But that’s not what we found.”
The actual cause for the decrease in sleep patterns was equally concerning. She found that it was more closely related to the increase in childhood obesity, which has been linked to a number of health problems. Many of these problems, and particularly sleep apnea, are closely tied to sleep interruption. Keyes says, “the decreases in sleep particularly in the 1990s across all ages corresponds to a time period when we also saw increases in pediatric obesity across all ages.” She also found that the teens whose families were classified as lower income, or who came from racial or ethnic minorities, also had a greater propensity for getting less sleep than was true for higher income or white households. That ethnic group also indicated that they were getting enough sleep, a revelation that indicates that more information is needed in this group regarding the importance of getting nine hours of sleep per night. “When we first started looking at that data,” she said, “I kept saying it had to be wrong. We were seeing completely opposite patterns. So our results show that health literacy around sleep are not only critical but that those messages are not adapted universally, especially not among higher-risk groups.”