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University of Basel

Self-confident adolescents sleep better

Text: Christoph Dieffenbacher

About one-fifth of adolescents say that they sleep badly. A psychologist from the University of Basel has been investigating the reasons for this for some years and is looking for solutions. He also has a few tips for parents.

As the father of four daughters and two sons, he should know: “Young people need almost exactly nine hours’ sleep at night,” says Dr Serge Brand from UPK Basel (University Psychiatric Hospital) and the Department of Sport, Exercise and Health at the University of Basel. The ideal amount of sleep as found in several studies is being reduced for various reasons these days, for example as a result of quite trivial changes in circumstances: Homework, sports training, group work and activities such as visits to the cinema, the theater and concerts take place increasingly in the evening and into the night at this age. This leads to adolescents going to bed far later than they did when they were still children.

Unchanged for 40 years

Dr Brand, who also works as a psychotherapist, has conducted a number of studies on this subject together with colleagues. A somewhat surprising outcome is that sleep disturbances – such as difficulty falling asleep or remaining asleep, waking too early, daytime fatigue – have not increased among adolescents in the last 40 years: “It is always around one-fifth of adolescents that are affected.” Dr Brand explains that the tablet computers, smartphones or screens used by many young people before they go to bed are not necessarily to blame for poor quality of sleep, but rather that it is the other way around: Those adolescents who already have difficulties sleeping occupy themselves more with electronic media before going to bed – with the (often illusory) intention of settling down and being able to fall asleep.

So what factors promote restful sleep during adolescence? Dr Nadeem Kalak, one of Dr Brand’s research colleagues, discovered that adolescents who do lots of sport sleep better – which can also be measured. This comes as no surprise. Yet the study also refuted the common belief that activities late in the evening are disadvantageous: even intensive sport one and a half hours before going to bed improves sleep according to Kalak’s findings. Young people should therefore be encouraged to do regular sport, also in the evenings.

More resistant to stress

Psychosocial factors, too, contribute to a good night’s sleep: Young people who feel that they are accepted by their peers, siblings, parents and teachers sleep better. The psychologist says that adolescents should therefore be given the opportunity to practice their social skills and to orientate themselves according to reliable social networks. And that’s not all: Mentally strong teenagers are more resistant to stress and also report that they have more restful sleep. Young people should therefore be given the chance to build up a stable self-esteem and to formulate visions and goals of their own that can also be realized.

Adolescents who are allowed to decorate their bedroom according to their own tastes and are able to keep their room quiet and dark report that they sleep better and more restfully. In Switzerland it is standard for adolescents of the middle classes to have a bedroom of their own – but teenagers from lower socioeconomic classes in particular continue to live in less favorable conditions, as the researchers discovered.

Sleep is ultimately also a family matter, according to Dr Brand. Adolescents whose parents have no difficulty sleeping also sleep better themselves. Mothers and fathers who observe their offspring’s sleep “carefully but firmly” and who intervene if necessary could even protect their children from depressive disorders. As adolescents grow older, their parents’ control decreases, but “if it stops altogether, that can have a dramatic effect on adolescents’ sleep and their psychological well-being.”

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