As many as 40% of kids suffer from sleep problems, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, which considers chronic sleep loss in adolescents to be a public health problem. Sleep is critical for physical as well as mental and emotional health, explains Francisco Navarro, MD, associate clinical professor in the UCLA Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and founder and clinical director of ResWell/Mind Health Institute in Pasadena. He warns that kids who stay up late trying to fit in more during the day will find their efforts backfiring as focus and function drop from fatigue.
“In a community like Pasadena, it’s all about pushing limits,” he says. “You can see it in public and private schools. There’s this mindset of going to the limits, whether in academics or athletics, and sometimes this comes at the cost of compromising sleep.” However, growth, learning, and repair all occur during sleep, so performance will suffer with deprivation, cautions Navarro, who lists the short- and long-term behavioral effects of lack of sleep or insomnia: irritability, hyperactivity, disorganization, distractedness, lack of impulse control, anxiety, depression, and even suicidal ideation.
According to a National Sleep Foundation report, 14- to 17-year-olds need eight to 10 hours of sleep while 6- to 13-year-olds need 9 to 11 hours. Preschoolers? They can sleep up to 13 hours a day, which is why licensed California childcare centers must offer a napping space. Younger children need sleep for their brains to develop and to learn basic skills such as speech (which occurs during memory-processing REM sleep). Growth hormones are also released during sleep, so kids short on shut-eye may end up smaller in stature, says Navarro. In older children, chronic sleep deprivation mimics ADHD and is a risk factor for substance abuse and mental health problems.
“Research has shown that four hours plus of screen time puts children and teens at risk of depression and anxiety,” says Navarro, who blames devices as the most likely reason kids aren’t getting enough rest. “We are all overshooting the four hours for work, school, or recreation. During pre-pandemic times, children and teens were spending on average eight hours a day on screens.” And with virtual school during the pandemic, that time just kept creeping up.
“People use the screen to decompress, and it feels self-soothing, but at night, when bedtime is at 10 p.m. and kids are getting off their screens at 10, it takes a full 60 minutes for the brain to settle down,” Navarro says. His advice? Switch screens to black-and-white mode to make them less visually and mentally stimulating, then shut them off an hour before bed. “If you train a brain to be alert and pay attention on a screen, it is trained to be awake,” he explains. Kids still sneaking in screen time after lights out? Try turning off the Wi-Fi completely, Navarro suggests. Sounds extreme, but less screen time—and more sleep—can benefit adults as well as adolescents.