Screens, teens and sleep: How to outsmart the nightly routine
A cognitive specialist shares the importance of sleep for teens and suggests a new routine to put more zzz in teenzzz.
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In the simplest terms, when you were a teenager and couldn’t sleep, the options were slim. You could read, stare at the ceiling or count sheep. That was it. Today’s teens have many more choices. Screens and tech have moved into the bedroom, and we’re all learning—still—what the long-term impact and benefits of that cultural shift will be.
Screens aside, teenagers are undergoing a big sleep shift hormonally. They’re transitioning sleep cycles from childhood to adulthood. Melatonin—the hormone that kicks in at the onset of darkness to help you sleep—peaks toward the middle of the night between 2 and 4 AM and gradually decreases as the sun rises. For my teenage clients who game, that can be the best time of day to game with friends in different time zones. That’s problematic, though, because teenagers are also wired to connect, and they’re finding connections online with other sleep-deprived teens.
So there are social, hormonal and developmental reasons for sluggish mornings and late nights of gaming, chatting with friends and scrolling social media. And it’s no surprise that teens today are facing a sleep crisis as school times start earlier and parents struggle to get teens going in the morning.
As a parent coach and cognitive specialist, I help parents understand their child’s brain development to make better parenting decisions. For this article, I interviewed 20 teenagers between the ages of 13 and 21 to ensure that the ideas listed here would make a difference. All of the teens I interviewed are clients of mine who are working with me to curb binge watching and gaming. What I’ve learned: When it comes to teens, sleep and screens, neuroscience can help you retrain your teen’s brain for optimal sleep.
But first, your teen’s brain and sleep
The teenage brain is still developing. The prefrontal cortex, which is the part of the brain that monitors and controls dopamine, impulse control and cognitive control, is not fully developed until the age of 25. Which means that teenagers require more guidance than you may have initially thought—or they’re willing to admit.
Meanwhile, the adolescent brain is producing growth hormones, stress hormones and sex hormones. Hormones are the messengers in the brain. They take the information from the part of the brain called the hypothalamus and pass it on to the body to tell it what to do. These hormones need a transportation route to carry these messengers like the pineal gland, pituitary gland and thyroid gland.
Hormone fluctuation is typical during the teenage years, and this can cause fatigue, anxiety and depression, all of which can have a big impact on your child’s development. This makes things tricky for a parent, because what seems like unusual behavior might be typical development behavior rather than a sign that something’s wrong.
So what’s the importance of sleep to teens? While teens sleep, the pituitary gland releases growth hormones for tissue repairs, and it needs to be working optimally. In the simplest terms, during deep sleep, the pituitary gland sends messages to the body and works like a clean-up crew to flush toxins, reorganize and get things ready for the next day. If this process of cleaning up doesn’t happen—between the peak melatonin hours of 2 and 4 AM—or is interrupted due to screens, your teen’s development could be impacted.
What’s the link between screens and hormones?
Prolonged exposure to screens can boost serotonin. Serotonin is one of the “feel-good” hormones and boosts a feeling of connection and belonging. While boosting serotonin by streaming a television series can artificially make your brain feel good, it can become a problem. For example, if you watch a video series from start to finish in one day and feel good doing it, you’re less likely to get up and move or take a physical break. The brain is content; therefore, the body thinks it’s content with the lack of movement.
Blue light from screens can impact the production of melatonin. Screens produce a spectrum of colors, including blue light, which during the day can increase focus and attention. In the evening, however, when the body is supposed to be going down with the sun, the blue light makes the brain assume it’s daytime and can limit the release of melatonin, which regulates the sleep cycle.
Gaming and interactive screen time also releases cortisol. Cortisol is a stress hormone that puts the body and brain in a heightened state of alertness. It can be triggered when your child engages in interactive screen activity before bed, which can make it more difficult to wind down into a peaceful slumber.
How much sleep do teens need?
Teens need an average of eight to 10 hours of sleep per night. Yet studies show that the average teen gets about seven hours of sleep.
Here are four steps to help your teen with sleep.
Step 1: Reset the internal clock.
If your teenager consistently stays up late with screens, the first step is to decondition that behavior and reset the body’s internal clock. That’s going to take some time—for the same reason that a trendy, short-term diet doesn’t work as well as lifestyle changes do for maintaining healthy habits. For the brain to be reshaped into healthier habits, it can take an average of 66 days. And for a new routine to become an automatic response, consistency is important. The goal is to stop staying up late, eliminate excess screen time and stop avoiding sleep.
Step 2: Move screens out of the bedroom.
It’s estimated that 89% of teens have electronics in their bedroom. Move gaming devices and screens out of their bedrooms. Ask your teen where these devices should go, or this could be perceived as a punishment instead of support. Developmentally, teenagers have a hard time avoiding temptation, so removing these devices or setting a time when they can be accessed and used can help your teen practice impulse control and strengthen self-control overall.
Step 3: Set a time to connect after screens go off.
Create a consistent bedtime schedule and routine. Teenagers are still kids; they still want to tell you about their day and connect with you. And this is also a chance to create the kind of situation that boosts serotonin in the right direction: a connection with you. If there’s an activity or routine they can look forward to after screens, it’s easier to turn them off. This is not the time to do chores or mow the lawn. Once the screens go off, plan to talk together about that winning move in their favorite game, or something new they’ve learned that day. The goal is to create a time when you can create a connection to you, the parent—and boost serotonin.
Step 4: Make time for sleep cues.
There are several nonscreen options to relax prior to bedtime that your family can do together to make for a more natural serotonin boost.
Use a sleep cue.
Drink water, stretch and dim the lights. These cues are done around the same time each night and tell your brain it’s time to go to sleep.
Take a hot bath.
Studies show that once you’re out of the hot water your body temperature decreases, which induces sleepiness.
Turn on the white noise.
Smart speakers are a great way to maintain a screen-free environment and can aid your child in a better night’s sleep. White noise has been proven to increase the quality of sleep and can help with falling asleep quickly.
Be patient. This is going to take time. One of the teenage girls I’m working with tried all the sleep cues and said they actually worked. But she wanted her parents to remind her to keep up the routine—not in a nagging way, but in a supportive way.
What I learned from that is yes, because they’re still kids, teenagers still want that parental affirmation without being micromanaged. They want to hear “good job.” So talk together about creating a new routine, and let them do it, but check in periodically and ask if they need anything. And hopefully, everyone can get a better night’s sleep.