Eyes wide shut: how lack of sleep damages teenagers’ wellbeing
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Visit VicHealth.vic.gov.au

Eyes wide shut: how lack of sleep damages teenagers’ wellbeing

Teenagers are not getting enough sleep – especially on weeknights – and research shows it can damage their health and wellbeing both now and later in life.


Sleep problems have long been thought of as symptoms of depression, but new research is showing that the reverse may also be true. Recent evidence suggests that people are more inclined to develop depression if they have sleep issues that aren’t being addressed, especially if they’re young.

In 2017, VicHealth commissioned the Sleep Health Foundation to conduct a rapid review of recent research exploring the link between sleep and mental wellbeing. As documented in Sleep and mental wellbeing: exploring the links, the review found that poor sleep is linked to an increased risk of depression across all age groups, but that those aged 12 to 25 are particularly vulnerable.

Poor sleep is linked to increased risk of depression with 12 to 25 age group more vulnerable

The research also revealed that sleep disturbances among adolescents affect their ability to regulate emotions, increase the risk of low self-esteem and anxiety, and can lead to suicidal thoughts and actions.

Dr Lyndall Strazdins, Professor at the National Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health at ANU in Canberra, has been working on research based on using time as a social determinant of health.

Time, she suggests, can be seen as a resource. When that resource is in short supply, it impacts on the individual’s capacity to engage in healthy behaviours including eating well and keeping active. Sleep, too, is one of the healthy behaviours under threat from the issue of ‘time poverty’. 

Principal Program Officer at VicHealth, Dr Kristen Moeller-Saxone warns against underestimating the time pressures that are keeping young people stressed and awake.

‘We now know that sleep problems during childhood and adolescence are predictive of depression in the longer term,’ she says. ‘Young people are missing out on the equivalent of one full day of sleep every month.’


What’s keeping young people awake?

‘Teens have a lot on their plates. They are trying to get the best exam results to get into a university or course of their choice. They are often juggling part-time work and study. Then, once they finish studying, there’s a big gap before they land their first job,’ Moeller-Saxone says, referencing research from the Foundation for Young Australians (FYA) that shows young people wait an average of 4.7 years between finishing full-time study and entering full-time work.

‘They are trying to compete in an ever-changing marketplace and we know they are aware of these pressures even before they leave school. Adults have gone through these transitions before and learned how to manage them, but we underestimate the fact that when you’re young, you are negotiating everything for the first time and learning on your feet. It can be stressful.’

Homework, caffeinated drinks and stress are contributing to later bedtimes for teens, but one of the insights from the Sleep Health Foundation research is that being online until late at night is also stopping kids from going to sleep.

‘A lot of young people are watching YouTube or playing video games until late and that’s a particular type of mental engagement,’ says Moeller-Saxone. ‘It impacts on their ability to go to sleep.

‘We also know there is a lot of loneliness and social pressures among young people and these also can affect sleep. We don’t tend to think of young people struggling with friendships. We think, oh, they’re just on the phone all the time. But if they are having problems with peer interactions then they’re also having problems sleeping.’

Every month young people lose out on an entire day's worth of sleep

The Sleep Health Foundation recommends teenagers have between eight and 10 hours sleep a night in order to function optimally. Its data shows adolescents are only getting an average of between 6.5 and 7.5 hours of sleep on school nights.

Michael Gradisar, Professor of Clinical Psychology at South Australia’s Flinders University, says one of the best things parents can do is try to instil a set bedtime on school nights and to try to do that for as many years as possible.

‘There’s clearly a link between having a parent-set bedtime and increased sleep and function in young people,’ he says. But can more be done at a community level to help time-poor and tired teens get to sleep?

Moeller-Saxone doesn’t want to see the problem pushed back onto young people. ‘It’s not enough to say to teenagers, ‘oh you have sleep issues, you should manage your time better’. We can put the pressure back on agencies, employers, schools and universities and ask what they are doing to help young people get a job, be trained adequately, have sufficient financial support so they can study.

‘It’s not so much about young people being better as about us being better at supporting them. Whether it’s mandates or governments saying you must reach out to a group of young people or whether it’s just raising the awareness among our own social group , we need to be supporting their mental health. That’s the key message.’

Gradisar agrees more needs to be done at a community level. ‘There is a need for employers to be more flexible around the times younger employees work. Business owners need to pay more attention to the sleep requirements of their employees and understand the benefits of that,’ he says.

‘Some of the research we’ve been doing for the past several years shows that going into schools and teaching sleep education can actually see teenagers gain at least half an hour of sleep per night.’

The important thing, says Moeller-Saxone, is to motivate teens to simply turn off their smartphones an hour earlier than usual. ‘A lot of aspects of mental health require bigger picture system changes, but the easy win here is just to turn off your mobile phone and get to bed an hour earlier through the week,’ she says. ‘We know this gives you an extra hour and 45 minutes sleep over the school week. That’s clear, quantifiable and obvious.’

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