Lack of sleep is one of the biggest preventable health problems that Irish teenagers are facing, according to analysis of extensive research among school pupils aged 15 and 16 years that show 56 per cent of them are sleep deprived.
Compelling correlations between lack of sleep and poorer mental health jump out of the data, according to Emmet Major, co-ordinator of Planet Youth in the west, which launched the survey results on May 22nd. The organisation is implementing the Icelandic Prevention Model for improving health outcomes for young people. It found that only 44 per cent of teenagers get sufficient sleep and it is those young people who are doing far better than their peers for wellbeing, mental health, resilience, self-esteem and school engagement.
The other 56 per cent of the nearly 4,500 young people surveyed in three western counties get less than the eight to 10 hours’ sleep recommended for teenagers. Another finding, that 83 per cent of teenagers have their phones in bedrooms at night, is being highlighted as the biggest barrier to sleep.
Planet Youth, by surveying 15- and 16-year-olds in all schools in Galway, Mayo and Roscommon every two years, can identify problematic trends and target appropriate interventions, either across the region, or specific to a county or local area.
Collated answers from the latest, very detailed lifestyle questionnaire that all those in post-Junior Cert year completed last November, show that 64 per cent of the youngsters who get eight or more hours sleep a night report their mental health as good or very good but only a third (36 per cent) who sleep six hours can say the same. This drops again, to 22 per cent, among those who sleep less than six hours.
We know there is a link between poor sleep and poor mental health. Good sleep is the single most effective thing people can do to support their mental health— Fiona Hughes, regional clinical health manager for Jigsaw
Sleep is one of the key areas the organisation targets in working with parents to support teenagers’ wellbeing. Its key message is that phones should be switched off at least one hour before bedtime and kept out of the bedrooms after bedtime. The organisation is also developing a three-lesson module for teachers of social, personal and health education (SPHE) on the importance of sleep, as this topic is not currently in the SPHE curriculum.
“We know there is a link between poor sleep and poor mental health,” says Fiona Hughes, regional clinical manager in Leinster for the national youth mental health service Jigsaw. “Good sleep is the single most effective thing people can do to support their mental health.”
Jigsaw works with young people aged 12 to 25, and many of those who contact the service report sleep difficulties. Teenagers struggling with sleep is something for parents to tune into, be aware of and explore with their child, she says.
‘In bed ruminating’
Typically, especially in the lead-up to stressful events such as exams, Jigsaw encounters teenagers who find it hard to fall asleep, and this may go on for several hours. “They may be in bed ruminating about what happened that day or thinking about the future and getting quite worried and stressed.”
Disrupted sleep is also problematic. “When they do fall asleep it won’t be of good quality. They will wake during the night and that cycle will kick off again, and then early rising is another difficulty.”
So what can parents do to help teenagers achieve a healthy level of sleep, whether it’s in the short-term among those facing State exams next month, or for the longer haul? While there’s no shortage of advice and coaching for coaxing your baby or toddler into a better sleep routine, fast forward a dozen years and the parenting challenges on this front are quite different.
I don’t know if young people understand that getting enough sleep has an impact on every aspect of their life: their academic prowess, their athletic ability, their beauty, their skin— Lucy Wolfe, early childhood sleep expert
Adolescents’ sleep is a huge issue and there is a “void” of resources here in Ireland, says Lucy Wolfe, an early childhood sleep expert who has applied her knowledge to work with Planet Youth on guidance webinars for parents. In her consultancy work with parents of babies and small children up to the age of six, she is usually contacted only when a child’s lack of sleep has become very problematic for the parents. They want to learn what they could do differently with their child.
“The challenge with the teenage cohort is that it ends up being quite self-directed,” says Wolfe who has teenagers of her own. “I don’t know if young people understand that getting enough sleep has an impact on every aspect of their life: their academic prowess, their athletic ability, their beauty, their skin.” In trying to convey that message, concentrate on the aspect most important to your teenager, she suggests.
If we want phones out of the bedroom and during downtime to initiate sleep, we parents also have to think about how to fill that time, she says, before “handing over the baton” to the teenager to complete their sleep routine. Family or connection time over a mug of hot chocolate or a game of cards might sound idealistic, she concedes, “but we have to figure out ways to help them make this transition”.
She regards teenagers as “casualties” in sleep deprivation because not only are they coping with “jet lag” from the hormonal transition of puberty, which causes later onset of sleep, but also “the homework, the extracurricular activities, the late-night GAA training”. All these are counterproductive to having a sleep routine and getting asleep before you are overtired, coupled with wake times driven by the need to get to school. “They are just not getting enough sleep.”
As illustrated in the book, Generation Sleepless, today’s teenagers are “caught in a perfect storm of omnipresent screens, academic overload, night-owl biology and early school start times”, say its US authors Heather Turgeon and Julie Wright. At a critical phase of their development, teenagers are living in a constant state of sleep debt while struggling to meet the demands of adolescence.
Lack of sleep has the greatest “across the board” impact on teenagers “because it underpins everything”, says Helen Butler, youth information co-ordinator with Youth Work Ireland Galway. We make allowances for small children when they’re over-tired but we don’t make allowances for teenagers.
“We don’t even consider they might be over-tired and why they might be over-tired. It affects your decision-making and your sensitivity. Everything is exaggerated.” It also affects concentration “and all of this feeds into mental health”.
Butler believes the importance of sleep for teenagers can be overlooked by parents, for whom she has the greatest sympathy because there is so much pressure on them. Planet Youth encourages parents to network and support each other so they can agree on a unified approach to issues. “Often all a parent wants is somebody else to say ‘no’ and they will row in,” comments Butler, who lives in Co Roscommon and has a voluntary role with Planet Youth there.
She has learned from conducting cybersafety sessions with teenagers that they are fine if parents say “I want your phone at nine o’clock”, but they can’t put down their phone at nine o’clock themselves. By following a house rule, “they can hide behind their parents”.
Butler, who is involved in parent training, always advises people to focus on simple stuff: talk to your child, build a relationship and try to become a “you can tell me anything” parent who they trust. Even if you’re freaking out inwardly, listen calmly until they get to the end of what they want to say.
“Young people give you information in pieces, and the second piece is determined by your reaction to the first piece.” Generally, teenagers do respect their parents and will follow rules, particularly if there is discussion and understanding, she says.
Heightened anxiety over impending exams is likely to disrupt sleep that is already being squeezed by extra hours of studying
She recalls how, a few years ago, a young person’s parents took the phone off her in the February before her Junior Cert and would not give it back until after the exams. “I thought it was the cruellest thing. We have to respect that they live their lives differently to the way we do.”
Young people are much more aware of their mental health, points out Hughes, so it’s important to help them understand that not getting eight to 10 hours’ sleep each night really affects mood, concentration and short-time memory – all very important for school and exams. Heightened anxiety over impending exams is likely to disrupt sleep that is already being squeezed by extra hours of studying.
Sam Kelly (21), who has just finished his third-year exams in economics and politics at Trinity College Dublin, remembers becoming stressed in advance of the bigger exams in his Junior Cert. (He didn’t get to sit his Leaving Certificate when, due to the Covid lockdown in 2020, calculated grades were awarded instead.)
“The higher level of stress means it’s more difficult to get to sleep, before you take in any other factors,” he says. It was not so much that he and friends were staying up until 1am cramming but rather, after stopping studying at maybe 9pm or 10pm, they tried to “claw back” some of the things they had missed during the day, such as watching TV or gaming, and postponing sleep as a result.
Managing anxiety is also important for sleep, says Kelly, who is a youth advocate with Jigsaw. “If you are really, really stressed, then some of the most scary times of the day can be trying to get to sleep, because you are alone with your thoughts.”
He knows friends who would stay up in the hope that they will just “pass out” when they go to bed, to avoid the risk of ruminating. If you can become comfortable with being alone with your thoughts, it is easier to relax and get to sleep.
Kelly agrees that although his generation are more conscious of the need for good nutrition and exercise, they still undervalue sleep. For fitness, you can do something positive like go for a run, but “to get a good night’s sleep, it is almost you have to not do something else,” he says. “It’s about not going on your phone before bed, not staying up late watching a movie – it’s more about the things you don’t do, which makes it more difficult to engage with.”
Whatever the challenges, the Planet Youth data on sleep deprivation is “startling”, says Wolfe. As parents, we need to prioritise sleep with our teenagers, “to help it to happen, as well as give them ownership over it”.