Teens and The Circadian Rhythm
By now it is common knowledge that teenagers tend to want to sleep later than younger children and adults. This is due to a brain function called the circadian rhythm. The circadian rhythm regulates your body’s 24 hour sleep and wake cycle. From the ages of about five to ten your circadian rhythm tells your body that you need to sleep starting at around 8:00 or 9:00 PM. This also happens once you are a mature adult (usually above the age of 25). However, puberty causes the circadian rhythm to be thrown off a bit due to new hormones that cause a shift called the “sleep phase delay” (UCLA Health). This shift pushes the circadian rhythm back about two hours, providing an explanation for why teens tend to naturally go to sleep around 10:00 or 11:00 PM. The catch - teens’ bodies still need over 9 hours of sleep each night to function to their best capacity. (Wolfson and Carskadon). Therefore, teenagers’ circadian rhythm literally tells their body to go to bed at 11:00 PM and wake up past 8:00 AM. However, the average High School starts around 7:30 AM, which means students, on average, are waking up at 6:00 AM. The loss of those two+ hours throws off teens’ circadian rhythm and causes drowsiness, inability to retain information, and higher risk of illness. Furthermore, teens try to make up for this loss by sleeping in on the weekends, which only aggravates the problem further. The human body is not a bank. You cannot sleep more on the weekends and expect it to make up for your lack of sleep during the week. The only way for teens to consistently not be tired is for them to consistently get nine or more hours of sleep a night.
It is important to note that teens, specifically high school students, are involved in many extracurricular activities outside of school. By the time most are done with sports practice and/or club meets, it is time for dinner, and then homework, and then BOOM, it’s 10:00 PM and they have to get ready for bed. On top of extracurriculars, the social aspects of being a teenager is important in facilitating communication skills and overall sanity. This vicious cycle of not having enough time for sleep causes symptoms that coincide with disorders such as insomnia, narcolepsy, obstructive sleep apnea, and circadian rhythm sleep disorders (UCLA Health).
So, how can this be fixed? The first step is for adults to stop nagging teenagers about sleeping late because they are biologically programmed to do so. Instead, parents should help teens maintain a steady sleep and wake cycle so their bodies can adjust to earlier times. Also, schools need to start later. Pushing back first period to 8:30 or 9:00 AM drastically increases teens chances of functioning well and paying attention in school. After all, if we have to be there for seven hours a day, five days a week, why not be able to actually stay awake?
UCLA Health. “Sleep and Teens.” UCLA Sleep Disorders Center, 2017,
Wolfson, Amy R, and Mary A Carskadon. “Sleep Schedules and Daytime Functioning in
Adolecents.” Child Development, vol. 69, no. 4, Aug. 1998, pp. 875–887.,