The Teenage Brain

I read an article in The Walrus about recent findings in neuroscience regarding adolescents. There was a lot of interesting information in it, but you had to wade through a lot of tenuous conclusions as well.

The thing that struck me was the fact that teenagers sleep patterns are radically different from those of children and adults. To quote a little bit:

“In fact, because they are waking up when the world dictates — rather than when their bodies tell them to — teenagers are chronically sleep-deprived, which can have consequences ranging from superficial to severe.”

These effects include an inability to concentrate at the time of day they are being required to do so. And low retention of what they are exposed to. The REM sleep at the end of their natural cycle, which is the sleep they are missing by being awakened by alarm clocks and/or parents, is crucial to processing information taken in the previous day. Another effect is increased risk of depression.

And what conclusion does the author draw?

“But it’s not easy to fight nature; perhaps the best parents can do is to encourage a slowdown of activity at a reasonable time in the evening, keep technology out of the bedroom and caffeine out of the fridge, and let their kids catch up on weekends.”

Pardon me? The problem with this article is its relentless focus on parents as the major influence in their teens lives and the only people who can act on the scientific evidence being presented. Catching up on the weekends might work to compensate for the occasional short period of overwork but it is not a solution to chronic sleep deprivation. It seems to me that if “it’s not easy to fight nature”, then we shouldn’t set up a school system that requires us to do so.

If this scientific research data is indicating that it is perfectly normal for adolescents to be more alert later in the day and to want/need to sleep from sometime after midnight for about 9 hours, then why aren’t our policy makers acting on that evidence. The main thing that the “world dictates” for teens is that they attend school. So maybe highschool should start at noon instead of 9 a.m. (or earlier).

And if adolescents need 9 hours of sleep per night perhaps we should stop treating them as if they should be sleeping less than toddlers and start making fewer demands on them. The amount of homework required of teens, added to sports and/or cultural activities (which are increasinly squeezed out of the school day), volunteer activities (increasingly mandated for high school graduation as a means of encouraging good citizenship), and paid work (increasingly necessary to pay for college tuition), makes it pretty difficult for teens to find 9 hours (any 9 hours) to sleep in.

Of course this would require serious social change. It would mean treating teens as fully human beings with needs that we should take seriously rather than a bunch of lazy so-and-sos who need to be squeezed into a mold. (I’m going to leave aside the question of whether adults should be squeezed into that mold either except to say that I don’t accept that as an argument in favour of doing it to teens.) It would also mean looking beyond the parents for solutions to the problems of adolescence.

Some of you are probably noticing that this suggests another big advantage for homeschooling, and I would agree. However, I have heard homeschoolers (either electronically or in person) talking about getting their kids into a routine of getting up early or making sure their kids don’t sleep all morning. I have also heard homeschoolers argue that teens need to step up the pace if they are going to get into, and succeed in, college.

While it is important to prepare our kids to live in the world, it behooves us to pay attention to the scientific research on adolescent brains. Given that we have the flexibility to “school” at whatever time of day suits us, we should consider the benefits of allowing teens to wake naturally even if this means nothing of substance happens before noon. It might be that the time spent after noon will be more efficiently used.

Also, in my experience and discussions with others it appears that adults have different rhythms. Some of us are most productive early in the morning; others mid-afternoon; others in the early evening. Helping our kids to find their own peak time for productivity might serve them better in the long-run than trying to force them into a rhythm that doesn’t suit them. We can also help them see that they will have to adapt that rhythm sometimes.


8 thoughts on “The Teenage Brain

  1. YEs it’s true… but if we going to accomdate teenagers sleep cycles we would also have to do something about the bright/creative kids who don’t fit into the system because it is only suited to meet the needs of the “average” student.
    We wouldn’t want to go around making children’s lives better would we…

    I think teaching is making me to cynical


  2. Yep, we’ve noticed the same thing here.

    So we go to bed late and get up late. We are pretty productive when most people are eating at a “regular” meal time or winding down for the evening.

    And if someone wants to do math at 9pm, good for them. 😀 Especially when you’re home, there’s no good reason to get up in the wee hours, not really. Suppertime when dad gets home could be mid-lunch for soemone else.

    All kids in the hosue get taught to respect the imposed schedules of others.


  3. I always tell my kids that they have responsibilities they need to get done and activities that they have choosen to participate in; they need to get up at such a time that they can fit everything in. It’s up to them to decide what that time shall be and to let me know so I can work around that schedule.


  4. I am a big supporter of natural sleep cycles, and always have been. I have seen a huge change in Scout, who used to be that bouncing bundle of energy with a natural 5am wake time move to a teen that I waken to start school by 11am. How can you learn if your brain isn’t awake? Girlfriend has always been a night owl, rising later. It works well for me, as I am an early bird and get some quiet time each morning.

    I do push toward college, but not in the way of schedule. I got more sleep in college than in the six years leading up to it. I push more for responsibility and work quality that will be needed. Totally different animal.


  5. Wanting to read the article! Oh well, I’ll rely on your assessment. I’m unconvinced, though, by anything that seems to generalise about whole age groups. I’m sure teenagers need more sleep than they often get, but remember when I was one – I conmtinued to wake at 6.30-7 throughout, and flake at about 10-11pm, whereas my bro did the ‘standard’ stay awake till 2am and struggle to get up in the morning.

    I know that as an adult I felt healthiest during my 5 months travelling alone, waking at 6 and going to sleep about 9pm. So I am sure that we should all be recognising our own cycles and trying to fit them, rather than just fit society’s norms, whatever our age.


  6. I wholeheartedly agree. The bus that my older daughter would take to middle school (had her crazy mom not gotten the notion to pull her out of school 3 years ago) stops near our house at 7 a.m. Of course, the schedule is set up to accomodate bus schedules, rather that children’s needs. When you factor that in with a 6-7 hour school day, increasing loads of homework (gotta keep up with those standards of learning), extracurricular activities and … well … life – I imagine most of these kids are under continual psychological and physical stress from sleep deprivation.

    Sarah (she’s 12) has always been a “night owl.” She doesn’t go to sleep easily at night and will sleep all morning if left to her own devices. I am torn between wanting to honor her biorhythms and needing to establish a rhythm and routine that works for our whole family.


  7. When I was in school, my junior high and high school started at 7am, while the elementary schools started after 8. It was PAINFUL. Now they’ve switched them. My mom is a teacher and thinks it’s made a difference. Seems to make sense to me. Sleep deprivation seems to be a big issue in general these days. I know none of us are getting enough in this house.


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