Effects of the coronavirus pandemic on youths’ sleep

Girl sleeping

We live in unprecedented times. This article explores the importance of sleep for children and teenagers together with some challenges presented to young people by the unique conditions of the coronavirus pandemic.

Youths may have trouble with learning and social development if their sleep is inadequate. Sleep deprivation impairs decision making and reduces attention and memory. Lynelle Schneeberg, assistant professor at Yale School of Medicine, states that “Sleep deprived kids have more behavioural problems, more academic problems, more health problems, more risk-taking behaviours, and more anxiety and mood related problems. […] Sleep deprived kids have more sleep terrors, nightmares, sleepwalking, and bedwetting.”

Jessica Brown, expert in paediatric sleep medicine at Our Lady of the Lake Children’s Health facility in Louisiana, identifies the problems resulting from insufficient sleep as including obesity, high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, irregular heartbeat and diabetes. Susan Malone, senior research scientist at NYU Rory Meyers College of Nursing in New York, underlines its association with self-harm and suicide among teenagers.

The biggest change wrought for young people by lockdown is missing school, out-of-school activities and meeting friends. Without the anchor of the school day, youths are going to bed later and getting up later. Lying in has become prevalent and parents are struggling to keep children’s and teenagers’ sleep on track. Adhering to a routine of sleeping and waking times is essential to preventing sleep disruption. Not having a regular routine, together with anxiety, is causing a late sleep phase among youths. The one upside of this delay in bedtime schedules is that it actually benefits teenagers because it’s more in line with their later body clock or circadian rhythm. A significant minority of children are also sleeping for longer than before. Nevertheless, these changes may make it more difficult to reset their routines when the school term resumes.

Time on technology has also spiked. Kids were already exceeding the World Health Organisation’s guidelines on screen time before the pandemic, but since social distancing came into effect, families’ screen time rules have been relaxed. Consuming or creating content on social media stimulates the wake centres in the brain, thereby inhibiting sleep. Portable devices are largely responsible for sleep deprivation in teenagers, mainly because they’re now part of their social lives and can be brought into bedrooms and even beds. There is research to suggest that protracted screen time for teens is linked to mental health problems such as anxiety and depression.

The nature of the family unit is such that these problems exist in dialogue with those of parents. Parents are finding it much harder to stay asleep, while those without children are faring better. Their parenting is also impaired as a result of disrupted sleep impacting their ability to function and the pandemic making it more difficult to impose and maintain boundaries and routines. For an analysis of how the pandemic is affecting adults’ sleep, please see here. You can also get more information on our courses and related materials by subscribing to our newsletter.