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"Today's teenagers are the most sleep-deprived bunch I've seen in years," says Cornell University psychology professor James B. Maas, Ph.D., author of Power Sleep (Harper Paperbacks). "The competitive pressures have skyrocketed past anything their parents ever felt. They get more hours of homework and juggle more advanced courses, extracurricular activities and after-school jobs. And the temptations for distraction are greater too. Their parents didn't have Facebook or cell phones competing for their time 24/7. It's not surprising that teens think sleep is a luxury -- and not the necessity that it is."
Parents and teens alike may miss, or misinterpret, signs of chronic sleep deprivation -- putting kids at risk for academic failure, under-par athletic performance, anxiety, depression, obesity, binge drinking and drug use. "If your child is moody, sullen or unfocused, don't always blame it on teen angst," says Jodi Mindell, Ph.D., associate director of the Sleep Center at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. These are often signs of too little shut-eye.
Contrary to what many parents think, teens need more sleep than grown-ups do. "If we muddle along on six or seven hours, we figure young adults should be able to as well," says Helene A. Emsellem, M.D., medical director of the Center for Sleep & Wake Disorders in Chevy Chase, Maryland. "But teenagers need more than nine hours a night."
The fact that many students must be at school at 7 a.m. doesn't help. "Early start times can wreak havoc," says Mary A. Carskadon, Ph.D., a Brown University professor of psychiatry and human behavior. Missing just one hour of sleep night after night can make a huge difference in health, alertness, memory and understanding. "The brain is an information-gatherer during the day and an information-storer at night," explains Dr. Emsellem. "After your teen sits through a biology lecture or reads from a textbook, the brain sorts the info and consolidates it into memories and learned facts as he sleeps. He'll recall that info much better after a good night's sleep."
So how do you convince your child to hit the hay a little earlier? "You can't make a teen sleep," says Dr. Emsellem, also author of Snooze or Lose: 10 No-War Ways to Improve Your Teen's Sleep Habits (Joseph Henry Press). "But you can tune in to his schedule and find ways to help him develop, and maintain, healthy sleep habits." The first step: Pay attention to what keeps him awake in the first place.