Mrs Alice Dabelstein, Head of Hirschfeld House
We are nearing the end of yet another busy academic year. Year 12 girls have completed their final exams and the remainder of the School is heavily involved in exam preparation, so it is unsurprising that some of the girls and their teachers appear to be running on empty. It is important that our bodies are adequately fuelled to manage and enjoy these milestone weeks.
The importance of good nutrition and good sleep is constantly being affirmed by parents on the home front, and by staff at the School. We all know that going to bed at a decent hour is at the least, desirable, and at the best, essential. But is it becoming increasingly difficult? Particularly for teenagers? Studies would suggest this is the case.
Sleep deprivation is common in Australia. Seven out of ten teenaged girls do not obtain sufficient sleep, while most sleep for fewer than the recommended nine hours. Clinical psychologist, Dr Aliza Werner-Seidler, believes at least thirty per cent of teens experience poor quality or disturbed sleep. According to the Australian Centre for Education in Sleep, thirty-five to forty per cent of teens and children experience sleep problems during the growing years at some point (Blunden 2008). What exactly is ‘adequate sleep’, and how much do teenagers require? According to the head of the Sydney Children’s Hospital’s department of sleep medicine, Dr Arthur Teng, the answer is between nine to ten hours of good quality sleep a night. Adolescents need more sleep than pre-pubescents or adults due to rapid physical changes and brain development. Dr Teng believes adolescents actually manage only about six to seven hours sleep every night, which means that they are operating on much less than they need (as cited in Daily Telegraph, 2007).
Why are teenagers sleeping less?
Poor sleep affects every part of an adolescent’s health and wellbeing. It can lead to physical sickness and emotional instability. According to the Australian Centre for Education in Sleep, poor sleep leads to a weaker immune system, making teenagers more vulnerable to illnesses. Sleep physician and SleepHub’s co-founder, Dr David Cunnington, believes that busy social lives, gadgets and co-curricular activities eat into teenagers’ sleep time.
Let’s deal with the gadgets. Technology is a major culprit as far as sleep time is concerned. Many experts believe technology is responsible for sleep deficits in at least seventy per cent of adolescents in Australia. Adolescents will go online to entertain themselves, connect via social media and play games or chat with their equally as awake friends. The bright screens of phones and gadgets disturb the circadian rhythms that regulate the sleep cycle and lead to emotional and cognitive arousal.
Teenaged girls are more at risk of losing out on precious sleep because of the ‘fear of missing out’ (FOMO) factor. Girls do not want to turn off their phones at night lest they miss that ‘all-important’ update from a friend, an invite to a party or reactions to their social media post. Girls also face more peer pressure to stay connected at night as many would rather arrive at school tired and drowsy than be rebuked by friends for being the only one in the group not texting.
Sleep and academic performance
Many studies have found a correlation between poor sleep and reduced academic performance, attention spans and executive functions (that is, skills that enable planning, organising and completing tasks) in children and teens. Researchers at University College London (UCL) studied forty-eight teenagers to test the connection between sleep and their academic performance. They found that students who slept for more than seven hours scored better in many tests. They also found that if more is learned during the day, more sleep is required at night so the brain can process and consolidate memories (2015).
Researchers the world over have established links between rapid eye movement (REM) sleep and memory recall. Vital gene activities need to occur during REM sleep to ensure the strengthening of neural connections, which, combined with deep sleep, allows us to process what we’ve learned during the day. Poor sleep also negatively impacts creativity, concentration and problem-solving abilities. Without REM sleep, adolescents arrive at school tired and often appear ‘vacant’.
For optimal brain function, we all (teenagers and adults) need to focus on better ‘sleep hygiene’: a disciplined schedule to promote better quality sleep and achieving the recommended hours of sleep every night. Parenting author and educator, Maggie Dent, provides useful ‘tips for better sleep’ in her book, Saving our Adolescents:
- Get plenty of sunshine and exercise every day
- Aim for eight to nine hours of sleep each night
- Drink calming teas like chamomile or warm milk-based drinks
- Create clear boundaries for technology use — keep mobile phones away from bedrooms and switched to silent overnight
- Use an alarm clock instead of a mobile phone
- Create a calm bedroom by removing clutter
- Create a pattern of sleep preparation, such as: shower, teeth, toilet, and bed
- Play calming music or relaxation audios
- Conduct a .b mindfulness practice
- Avoid TV and all screens (including phones) for at least one hour before bed
It stands to reason that pulling an ‘all-nighter’ before an important exam will not lead to a positive outcome. Sleep is precious. We need to see it not as something expendable, but as the stable centre around which everything else should revolve in a balanced lifestyle. As the Year 10s learned when they studied the troubles of the chronically sleep-deprived Macbeth this year, sleep ‘knits up the ravelled sleeve of care’ and is ‘sore labour’s bath, balm of hurt minds, great nature’s second course, chief nourisher in life’s feast’.
Blunden, S. Dr (2008). Sleep Problems in Adolescents. Retrieved from http://www.sleepeducation.net.au
Cooper, L (2017). Australia, we have a Sleep Deprivation Problem. Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com.au/2017/02/07/australia-we-have-a-sleep-deprivation-problem_a_21708513/
Cunnington, D. Dr. (2016) [Podcast]. Retrieved from http://sleephub.com.au
Dent, M. (2012). Saving our Adolescents. NSW: Pennington Publications.
Shakespeare, W. (n.d). Macbeth.
The Daily Telegraph. (2007) Kids sleep deprivation epidemic. Retrieved from http://www.dailytelegraph.com.au/news/national/australian-kids-sleep-deprivation-epidemic/news-story/b8af1953ef616c3aa5ed006215d2301b
The Guardian. (2017). Teenagers sleep quality and mental health at risk over late-night mobile phone use. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2017/may/30/teenagers-sleep-quality-and-mental-health-at-risk-over-late-night-mobile-phone-use
Tilley, C (2014) Explainer: Is your child getting enough sleep? Retrieved from http://www.abc.net.au/news/2014-03-14/explainer-childrens-sleep-patterns-world-sleep-day/5320622
UCL London (2015) Retrieved from https://theconversation.com/why-children-who-sleep-more-get-better-grades-51828