4 Reasons Why Kids Aren't Getting Enough Sleep

What science reveals about children's lack of sleep—and how parents can help.

Posted Oct 18, 2019

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With so many demands for our children’s time, it’s not surprising that they aren’t getting enough sleep. This is anything but trivial, as sleep deprivation in young people is linked to a host of problems, including increased rates of obesity, poor mental health, and worsened academic performance. 

At this point, it’s hard to argue that the data on sleep and children is fuzzy or unclear. In 2015, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) looked at sleep behavior in middle and high school students. Their research was rather troubling, showing that around 60 percent of middle school and 73 percent of high school students are getting less sleep than recommended (per the CDC, 9-12 hours a night for children aged 6 to 12, and 8-10 hours a night for children aged 13 to 18).

This is important, because, as stated by a review published in the journal Pediatrics, “adolescent sleep loss poses a serious risk to the physical and emotional health, academic success, and safety of our nation’s youth.”

Why is there such a gap between recommendations and actual sleep patterns? Several issues have been proposed as contributing to the sleep-loss epidemic in the younger generation.

1. Electronic device use

There’s solid evidence that electronic device use is negatively impacting sleep in children. For example, a 2015 review looked at 67 studies on the connection between electronic device use and sleep in youth, concluding that screen time very likely harms sleep in school-age children and adolescents. Screen-based electronics appear to create these issues by displacing sleep and changing circadian rhythms (this happens in adults, too). 

2. Changes in internal clocks

There’s also the idea that as children enter puberty, their bodies naturally push their internal clocks forward, making them more likely to stay up late and wake up late. The impact of evening and nighttime screen use may enhance these natural processes, moving their internal clocks even further forward.

3. Early school start times

Early school start times may contribute to the problem as well. In contrast to the idea of maximizing every waking moment for education, a few schools have pushed their start times back, with impressive results. Starting school just a bit later appears to improve sleep duration in students significantly.

What about the fears of worsened academic performance if students miss out on early morning education? Not only does academic performance not worsen, but many studies also demonstrate that it actually improves in those starting school later.

4. Caffeine

It’s worth mentioning that caffeine may contribute to worsened sleep in youth as well. It's likely that few are surprised by this suggestion—but when 73 percent of children drink caffeine on a given day, it may play a larger role than we thought. It’s worth noting, however, that the relationship between caffeine and sleep may be complicated. Certainly, caffeine may cause poor sleep, but children who don’t get enough sleep for other reasons may be turning to caffeine to get them through the day, potentially perpetuating a vicious cycle of poor sleep. 

How to Help

With all this considered, it’s clear we should be doing more to help our young people get better sleep. Here are a few simple strategies to support them in reaching this goal. 

  1. Institute a one-hour, screen-free period before bed. This may not be sustainable for everyone, but can be modified to what is possible. (This is a good behavior to model as a parent, as it benefits adults as well.)
  2. Use blue light blocking technology in the hours before bed. There are recent data suggesting that blue light from screens at night may be behind some of the sleep issues with screen exposure. You can turn on "night mode" on many devices, or even consider buying blue light blocking glasses for use at night. 
  3. Have some patience with teens who want to sleep in. It’s not just laziness that makes them tired early in the morning, since their circadian rhythms may very well be pushed forward without their consent. Keep an open mind regarding later school start times.
  4. Limit caffeine, especially later in the day. We may not be sure the extent to which caffeine is altering the sleep habits in our youth, but we know it is a powerful drug, so caution should be employed until we figure out its effects on young people’s slumber and general health. Keep an eye out for energy drinks, which can sometimes contain more caffeine than a comparably sized cup of coffee.