Teens and Sleep: Are Teens Being Lazy Or Are Adults Not Getting It?

Teens sleep. All the time, it seems. Are teens simply being lazy or are they doing what their bodies tell them to do? And could it be that adults look at sleep and teens the wrong way?

Teens are often portrayed as moody, uncommunicative, and lazy and at times they certainly are. But many adults overlook the fact that the teenage brain is totally unique and that teens go through the second largest phase of brain development since the 0–3-year age period. The teen brain has characteristics that are not found in either children or adults and therefore teens are rather difficult for adults to understand. As a teenager is getting ready for independent life, the teen brain is going in learning overdrive, making new neural connections constantly. Simultaneously the teen brain is wired to shift the focus from the family to its peer group as it will be in the peer group that their future life shall play out.

And all this new learning and brain development needs sleep. Sleep is a teenager’s wonder drug and totally essential, not least because it helps learning and memory. The under slept teen brain is – according to Matthew Walker, a professor of Neuroscience and Psychology at UC Berkeley – like a ‘leaky sieve’ and little of what is learned at school will stick. Studies do show that sleep and grades are indeed highly correlated as are sleep and mental health. Teens who do not sleep enough tap into their ‘emotional brain’ more than into their higher thinking – rational – parts of the brain and will appear grumpy and snappy in their responses and may not make good choices or be attentive at school.

But teens are not getting near enough of the required 8 hours of sleep. Walker mentions how the circadian rhythm of teenagers shifts by almost 3 hours, making teens go to bed later and struggle to get up during weekdays when early school starts are the norm; an 8.30 school start is like a 5.30 am to a teenager and just imagine how fresh we are ourselves at such an early hour.

The catching up on sleep during weekends and waking up around midday - to great annoyance of parents – is a way for teens to deal with their sleep deprived selves as the very late bedtimes become a pattern that keeps shifting forward. Other than the relative ‘jet lag’ teens have compared to adults and children, other things affecting bedtimes are the newly important peer group, as teens stay in touch with their friends on social media until deep in the night and although this is far from ideal, it is also part of their process.

The way teen brains are wired is unproductive for sleep as their school- and family lives are not in sync with it. But given the great importance of sleep in this phase of a teen’s (brain) life, finding ways to improve quality and duration of sleep is a key priority. Although the physiological and social aspect are hard to change, at least it can be easy to help improve a teen’s sleep environment by – if possible - separating study- and sleep areas (studying in the bed is a no-no) and by switching off phones after a certain hour as not to have to respond to snaps and messages during the night, which seriously messes with sleep.

So, don’t think that teens sleep because they are lazy, but instead that they do need all that sleep to increase both short- and long-term brain health and to keep well mentally too. Their bodies can’t help it. Patience.

Listen to our Podcast on teen sleep with Lisa Artis, Deputy CEO of the Sleep Charity UK.

Suggested links:





Why we sleep by Matthew Walker, Allen Lane 2017

Blame my brain by Nicola Morgan, Walker Books 2013