Find out why teenagers sleep differently than adults and how science explains this fascinating phenomenon.
Youth sleep: a puzzle for adults
Who hasn’t been exhausted by watching the hectic pace of a teenager’s life? Adults often find it hard to understand how young people can pull an all-nighter without a problem, provided they sleep all day afterwards.
As our bodies age, they seem to lose their ability to withstand long periods without sleep. Yet teenagers seem to sleep more than adults. How do we explain this difference in sleep requirements between the two age groups?
The Science Behind Decreased Sleep Requirements
In a previous article, we explained that the amount of sleep our bodies need tends to decrease as we age. Insomnia, for example, tends to increase with age. But it’s not just a question of quantity: teenagers and adults sleep differently, and there’s a scientific explanation for that too.
Sleep patterns: a difference of about an hour
The difference between the sleep needs of teens and adults is not that great. In fact, studies show that 14- to 17-year-olds generally need 8 to 10 hours of sleep per night, while adults need 7 to 9 hours. That’s a difference of about an hour.
Over time, our bodies gradually lose the ability to maintain this extra hour of rest, for a variety of reasons. During adolescence, bedtime is generally later, making it difficult to go to bed early and wake up earlier. Psychology professor Alice Gregory, as quoted by BBC’s Science Focus, points out that this change in sleep patterns is seen in adolescents around the world and even in other mammals.
Social jet lag”: a scientific explanation
One of the main reasons for this difference lies in sleep cycles. If teenagers go to bed later than adults, it is normal that they stay in bed longer. This is also due to the “social jet lag” described by Alice Gregory.
In our modern society, the days usually start early. Adolescents are often forced to live out of step with their natural rhythms by getting up early for school. This creates a vicious circle: if they can’t fall asleep early, they may have trouble sleeping. On weekends, when they have more control over their schedule, they go to bed later and wake up later.
This social jet lag is comparable to the symptoms of jetlag and can lead to health problems, such as obesity and depression.
What to do about this sleep dilemma in youth?
So how should young people deal with this mismatch between their need for sleep and the demands of daily life? Alice Gregory, an expert on the links between sleep and psychopathology, behavioral genetics, sleep paralysis and explosive head syndrome, recommends gradually building good sleep habits into the school and work week.
While it may be tempting to sleep nonstop for an entire weekend to recoup lost sleep, it is best to adopt a more consistent sleep routine. This will allow teens to live more in tune with their natural rhythms while adapting to the demands of modern life.
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