Waking up on the wrong side of the bed is a fact of life most people have experienced. While a mild case of the grumpies may be the case for some, the results of a short, restless night of sleep could be much more serious.
UNM College of Education & Human Sciences (COEHS) Associate Professor Ryan Kelly has highlighted these impacts in multiple recent research investigations. In Family and Child Studies, Kelly is focused on understanding the ways in which sleep impacts health among teenagers.
“If you don't get enough sleep not only does it impact you tomorrow, the effects persist over time,” Kelly said.
By effects, Kelly refers to increased occurrences of anxiety, depression, and anger. Teenagers are more likely to experience these things alongside other disturbances to their mental health.
“These are the things that so many of us care about, right? We all want that optimal mental health functioning,” he said. “Lots of us have symptoms of depression. Some of us are aggressive. Sleep-related problems can compromise mental health in really robust ways.”
In studying and surveying 246 teenagers ages 15 to 16, across multiple consecutive years, Kelly and his fellow researchers discovered that theory reverberated back tenfold, which ended up being published in Child Development.
“Sleep has both this short term effect and long term effect on mental health. In our samples we also consistently find teens don't get enough sleep.” – Professor Ryan Kelly
Parents also reported worsening mental health functioning among participating teens. Daytime sleepiness, shorter sleep duration, more night wakings and greater variability in sleep duration over several nights were particularly robust predictors of depression symptoms, anxiety and aggression.
“Poor mental health functioning may also spill over into the classroom,” Kelly said.
It’s not just ensuring that youth repeatedly receive adequate sleep duration that could make a difference either. Ensuring teens do not trade a typical five or six hours during the week, for an intense bout of sleeping 12 hours on a Saturday, is also important.
“This is a sleep-related problem, too,” he said. “It's that variation in sleep duration that really throws your body off, and it has that effect on mental health outcomes. That's particularly relevant to teenagers.”
Although a repeated nighttime routine may seem dull and in need of change, the benefits of sleep do not waver. The Department of Health and Human Services notes it promotes a healthy immune system and weight, improves mood and learning abilities, and reduces incidents like drowsy-induced crashes.
“Sleep is multifaceted and multidimensional. We look at sleep from all these different angles,” Kelly said.
There is a whole other layer to sleep trends for teens in New Mexico. With one of the highest poverty rates in the country at a startling 25% for kids under 18, teens who come from lower-income families, are not as likely to sleep as long or well.
They are often preoccupied with making ends meet, or worrying about their parents doing so, to sleep as easily as their counterparts, who may have fewer, less concerning problems such as which weekend plans to make.
“These are all the stressors that the child has to face and throw on top of sleep, after navigating the day with all these symptoms. It's like the tipping point,” Kelly said.
Kelly notes that domino effect. Higher rates of poverty and stress equal less sleep for teens. Less sleep hits mood, which could compromise academic achievement.
“The brain really develops and goes through a lot of different processes at night. It develops and filters in and out information at night,” he said. “So especially with a teenager not sleeping, then the brain isn't going to have the opportunity to develop like it otherwise would be able to.”
Adults could stand to benefit too. Kelly has also investigated the impact of poor sleep on parents, which revealed elevated levels of harsh parenting. Fathers in particular, were more likely to be aggressive toward their children when lacking rest.
“When dads don't get enough sleep, they don't parent in accordance with their values, maybe how they want to parent,” he said. “They may become dysregulated, tired, and end up doing things that contradict how they want to see themselves as a parent.”
So how can we make sure the previous and next generation of high-schoolers are equipped to handle their studies and mental well-being while enjoying their lives? The answer is not a one-fix solution, but Kelly has a few suggestions to start with.
“High schools often start early. They're not compatible with teenagers' bioregulatory systems. You have teenagers who are sitting in first period exhausted. Delaying the start time may be one piece of the puzzle,” he said.
Part of this possible improvement comes from changes in the brain that occur during puberty. During this period of development, the brain often prefers a later bedtime and later morning wake time.
“In early adolescence, an important change involving the release of the hormone melatonin occurs and there is a significant shift in teens’ bioregulatory systems,” Kelly said. “So what that means for a teenager is that they have difficulty falling asleep earlier at night and waking early in the morning. Later bedtime and later wake time.”
With a later school start time, students can sleep later. It’s a recommendation of the American Academy of Pediatrics, which points to 8:30 a.m. or later as an ideal time for first period.
“High school start times is one step,” Kelly said. “It's not going to fix all the problems in the world, but it's going to help teenagers get 30 or 40 minutes of more sleep, which in turn helps with mental health functioning and academics. The research on this is extensive.”
For all ages, it’s clear there is plenty of good news when it comes to full, regular sleep schedules. Kelly says for that reason, it may be time to drop the mindset many early risers and packed schedulers have.
“It's a common misconception teenagers don't need a lot of sleep,” he said. “You hear: ‘you can sleep when you're dead, right?’ ‘The early bird gets the worm.’ ‘Operating without sleep will make you tougher.’”
The benefits of acknowledging, and taking steps to repair sleep schedules, could make grouchy teens a persona of the past.
“So many of us are interested in how we can be as good as we can possibly be,” Kelly said. “When teenagers sleep more, we put them in a better position to hit their optimal development in school and with mental health. We can use sleep to our advantage to help teens be as good as they possibly can be.”
Learn more about the focus on your sleep as well as other research underway in the College of Education & Human Sciences. Read each of Kelly’s over 30 peer-reviewed publications and research papers at Google Scholar.