Seattle teens’ minds ‘more a sieve, less a sponge’ with an average seven hours of nightly sleep

Apr 1, 2022, 1:03 PM

Kids of all ages need more sleep, not just young children. The consequences of insufficient rest time go beyond morning grogginess: they have profound effects on a teenager’s mental health.

On average, U.S. teenagers sleep for six and a half hours a night. A recent University of Washington study that surveyed Seattle high school students found an average closer to 7 hours. When left uninterrupted, natural sleep cycles increase to nine and a quarter hours. That number ranges closer to 12 when accounting for sleep deficits, according to Heather Turgeon, psychotherapist and co-author of Generation Sleepless: Why Tweens and Teens Aren’t Sleeping Enough and How We Can Help Them.

UW study: Teens get more sleep, better grades with later start times

“I think there’s not quite as much of a focus on teenagers, we kind of think they can tough it out. There’s just not as much of an appreciation for how vital sleep is and how much sleep teenagers need,” Turgeon told KIRO Newsradio.

“The sleep-deprived brain just doesn’t learn as well, doesn’t absorb information as well. It’s more like a sieve and less of a sponge.”

Part of the problem is the average U.S. teenager’s sleep schedule: they naturally have a shifted biological clock that gravitates towards falling asleep later and waking up accordingly, something which does not align with school start times.

“For some reason, it’s been so hard to get high schools and districts and states on board with the science,” Turgeon continued.

“Shifting school start times in high school and middle school to 8:30 a.m. or later helps alleviate that pressure in the morning, and allows kids to get dream sleep, which happens in the morning. The last couple hours of sleep are mostly dreams. Those are important to their mental health.”

Compounding the problem is how electronics and artificial light affect natural melatonin levels. Turgeon is a proponent of melatonin supplements for the sleep-deprived, but ultimately nothing accounts for lifestyle habits that lend themselves to accruing the chemical naturally.

“Young adolescents … their sleep can be very easily disrupted just by their nervous systems getting activated. They have a lot of big questions, and a lot of big thoughts. Some are still experiencing fear of the dark, nightmares, and anxiety.”

“There’s technology in their lives too. And they’re very susceptible to their natural melatonin being suppressed. So researchers see this about young adolescents, that their melatonin can be suppressed very easily. We have to be even more protective of their wind downtime and lower the lights in the house, entering a stress-free zone where we don’t do anything too interesting before bed.”

Dave Ross on KIRO Newsradio 97.3 FM
  • listen to dave rossTune in to KIRO Newsradio weekdays at 5am for Dave Ross on Seattle's Morning News.

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Seattle teens’ minds ‘more a sieve, less a sponge’ with an average seven hours of nightly sleep