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How does sleep affect the wellbeing of teenagers?

Dr Aliza Werner-Seidler

Experts from Black Dog Institute explain the vital role of sleep in teenagers' health and wellbeing.

An overhead photo of a person sleeping in a bed with their smartphone on a chair next to them.
An overhead photo of a person sleeping in a bed with their smartphone on a chair next to them.

If you live with a teenager, or are one, we’ll bet there’s a growing struggle to get up in time for the school bus every. Single. Day. Teenagers cop a lot of flak for their love of shut eye, but the reason has nothing to do with laziness or demotivation and instead a symptom of simply being an adolescent age. In the teenage years, significant changes occur in the brain in areas essential for learning, memory and emotional regulation. Getting enough sleep to support these process helps enhance memory, problem-solving, and emotional resilience. Sleep also plays a major role in hormonal regulation, including the release of the hormone needed for physical development during puberty.

Associate Professor at Black Dog Institute and clinical psychologist, Aliza Werner-Seidler, highlights the importance of adequate sleep for teens. “Sleep may be the single most significant factor in maintaining positive mental health for individuals under the age of 20,” she says.

So, when your teen starts to snooze more, or you’re a teen noticing how much more you want to sleep lately, it’s important to remember this is not only a very normal need, but a vital one.

How much sleep do teens need?  

On average, teens need about 8 to 10 hours of sleep per night to support their physical, cognitive, and emotional health. While some teenagers may function well with slightly less sleep, many require closer to the upper end of the recommended range to feel rested and alert during the day. So, if they feel like a sleep in on the weekends, it’s a good thing to let them!

So how are our teens sleeping? 

Research by the Black Dog Institute reveals concerning statistics about teen sleep patterns in Australia. “In a large, long-term study of teen mental health, 47% of students in Year 9 reported sleeping less than 8 hours per night and 19% reported sleeping less than 6 hours. Unsurprisingly, 31% of teens reporting feeling very tired during the day,” says Aliza.

Why is it so difficult for teens to get enough good quality sleep? 

“During adolescence, teens undergo significant changes in their sleep patterns due to developmental shifts,” says Aliza. “Most teens naturally fall asleep later and wake later, feeling sleepy only around 11 pm and waking up around 8 am.”

What this means is that lifestyle expectations such as early school start times can lead to chronic sleep deprivation for young people. Other contributing factors include overscheduling and the pervasive use of mobile devices which displace sleep.

What are the negative effects of lack of sleep for teens?

Aliza explains that sleep deprivation in adolescents has been linked to many negative outcomes, including impaired brain function, emotional dysregulation, increased risk-taking behaviour, and heightened vulnerability to mental health disorders. In their research, the Black Dog Institute found that high school students with sleep problems faced heightened difficulties with schoolwork and attendance, more problems with peer relationships, and 4-6 times the risk of experiencing mental health symptoms like anxiety or depression.

What can parents do to promote and support healthy sleep habits in teens?

Each teen is in an individual, but parents can play a crucial role in helping them establish good sleep hygiene by: 

Make regular sleep patterns and sleep hygiene a family priority

Set and model family values about sleep; discuss screen time reduction before bedtime, ensure bedrooms are cool and comfortable, and establish consistent/regular bedtime and wake up times.  

Minimise early morning activities

To support teen circadian rhythms, where possible, reduce the number of early morning or before-school commitments to give teens that valuable extra sleeping time in the morning.  

Lifestyle support

Encourage a balanced diet and regular exercise to improve sleep.

Support teens to improve their sleep

nib foundation partner, the Black Dog Institute, offers a free, evidence-based smartphone app called Sleep Ninja®, which has been shown to be effective in helping young people with sleep problems. Based on Cognitive Behavioural Therapy for Insomnia (CBT-I), Sleep Ninja teaches strategies across six ‘training sessions’ to develop healthy sleep habits and improve sleep quality. Sleep Ninja can be downloaded free on the App Store and Google Play.

For more information, head to the Black Dog Institute website.

nib foundation understands the vital role of sleep for teen health and learning, so is supporting the Black Dog Institute to modify Sleep Ninja® into an educational resource for Australian high schools. Watch this space!

Dr Aliza Werner-Seidler smiling at the camera while wearing a white blazer

Dr Aliza Werner-Seidler

Dr Aliza Werner-Seidler is a Scientia associate professor and clinical psychologist at the Black Dog Institute. She has a PhD from the University of New South Wales and has undergone post-doctoral training at Cambridge University. Aliza’s areas of research include the prevention and treatment of depression and anxiety disorders in adolescence and young adults, as well investigating sleep disturbance as a contributing factor to mental illness. When Aliza is not working, you can find her escaping the city for the bush or beach, joyously listening to 90s trance music on the journey.