The Damage Chronic Sleep Deprivation Inflicts on America’s Youth

Sep 7, 2023 | Uncategorized

Many parents know the drill: “With the start of a new school year comes the inevitable battle to get kids back into a healthy bedtime routine. In many cases, this likely means resetting boundaries on screen use, especially late in the evenings,” wrote University of Washington pediatrics professor Maida Lynn Chen recently on The Conversation.  

“A growing body of research is finding strong links between sleep, mental health, and screen time in teens and tweens—the term for pre-adolescent children around the ages of 10 to 12,” Professor Chen warned. “Amid an unprecedented mental health crisis in which some 42 percent of adolescents in the US are suffering from mental health issues, teens are also getting too little sleep.”

Author and psychology professor Jean Twenge has warned for years about a serious mental health crisis among young Americans and offered a primary cause: smartphones and the social media that come with them. 

“Every indicator of mental health and psychological well-being has become more negative among teens and young adults since 2012,” she wrote in her latest book Generations. “The trends are stunning in their consistency, breadth, and size. Most involve what psychologists call internalizing disorders, such as depression and anxiety. Even when they do not rise to the level of disorders, these emotions are not pleasant—they involve feeling unhappy, dissatisfied with life, and down on yourself.”

According to Professor Chen, not getting enough sleep and screen use late in the day contribute to a vicious cycle: “Both a lack of sleep and the heightened activity involved in the consumption of social media and video games before bedtime can exacerbate or even trigger anxiety and depression that warrant intervention.” 

Guess what young people do when they’re lying in bed awake, frustrated, and unable to sleep? That’s right: they get on their smart devices.

“Research has long shown a clear relationship between mental health and sleep,” explained Chen. “Poor sleep can lead to poor mental health and vice versa. People with depression and anxiety commonly have insomnia, a condition in which people have trouble falling or staying asleep, or both, or getting refreshing sleep. That ongoing sleep deprivation further worsens the very depression and anxiety that caused the insomnia in the first place.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), children and adolescents who do not get enough sleep have a higher risk of obesity, diabetes, injuries, poor mental health, and problems with attention and behavior. CDC data show that 57.8 percent of middle school and 72.7 percent of high school students did not get enough sleep on school nights.

Both Chen and Twenge believe excessive use of smartphones has a lot to do with those statistics. “Scrolling social media requires being awake, and hence, displaces sleep, Chen wrote, and “the light emitted from most hand-held devices, even with a night filter, a blue light filter or both, is enough to decrease levels of melatonin, the primary hormone that signals the onset of sleep.”

When melatonin release is inhibited by staring at a lit device near bedtime, falling asleep becomes more of a challenge. But even more problematic for Chen “is the content that young people are consuming. Taking in fast-paced imagery like that found on TikTok or video games before bedtime is disruptive because the brain and body are highly stimulated by these exposures, and require time to settle back into a state that is conducive to sleep.”

Addiction professionals who treat teenagers are well aware of these issues. Avanti’s clinical director Kathy Rodriguez stresses the importance of family engagement: “The struggles that kids face today on a day-to-day basis are totally different from what their parents experienced. If you look at the component of social media and how that impacts how they view themselves, how they view others, and the trauma that can come from it as well.” 

Families need to understand these factors to be able to rebuild a support system for their kids with substance use and mental health issues and then tie in their communities. “Families are not alone,” says Rodriguez.

Recovery in the Denver Area 

The mission of Avanti Behavioral Health’s intensive outpatient program (IOP) for clients between the ages of 13 and 18 is to provide comprehensive, holistic, family-centered, and trauma-informed care for your teen. A thorough clinical assessment is a crucial step in the treatment process at Avanti. It is a free evaluation that aims to identify any misdiagnosed or undiagnosed conditions that may be affecting the well-being of your child. 

Through evidence-based assessment tools and clinical interviews, our experienced clinicians gather valuable information about an adolescent’s emotional, behavioral, and psychological functioning. This process helps us uncover underlying mental health conditions—such as anxiety and depression— substance use concerns, or other co-occurring disorders that may be contributing to their challenges.

The Avanti team believes that recovery from a substance use disorder is a process that should involve the entire immediate family. We have developed an effective and highly involved method of family counseling. For more information about our IOP and family programming call us at (720) 753-4030. 

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