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How Teen Sleep Habits Affect Mental Health

Written by Evolve's Behavioral Health Content Team​:

Alyson Orcena, LMFT, Melissa Vallas, MD, Shikha Verma, MD, Ellen Bloch, LCSW, Lianne Tendler, LMFT, Megan Johnston, LMFT Meet The Team >

Is your teen sleeping the recommended 8-10 hours? About three-quarters of high schoolers don’t get enough sleep. This not only puts them at risk for physical health problems, but also mental health disorders like depression and anxiety.

During adolescence, development is supercharged. Teens can’t cope with the stress of physical, emotional, and social changes without enough sleep. Some experts believe that behaviors commonly associated with adolescence, such as moodiness, sleeping in, and risk-taking, are not necessarily a normal part of being a teenager, but rather stem from sleep deprivation. Many teens don’t realize they’re living in a haze due to sleep deficits until they change their habits.
Half of all mental health disorders emerge by age 14. For those who are predisposed to mental health disorders, sleep deprivation could trigger the following issues:


In one study, teens with depression reported both poor sleep quality and quantity compared to teens who didn’t have depression. This can start a vicious cycle – poor sleep affects mood, and depression can lead to lack of sleep. Going to sleep just 30-60 minutes earlier each night made a significant difference in depression scores.

Substance Use/Risky Behaviors

If teens get less than six hours of sleep per night, research shows they’re twice as likely to use alcohol or other drugs, have unprotected sex, and engage in other harmful behaviors. Problems with impulse control and judgment can lead to poor decision-making, especially during adolescence, when teens don’t have fully developed executive function.

Reckless Driving

Fatigue is a leading cause of traffic accidents each year. One study found that over half of crashes where the driver fell asleep at the wheel were caused by youth under age 25.

Poor Self-Control

Less sleep has been tied to emotional problems such as aggression, impulsivity, and irritability. Sleep-deprived teens may even display some of the same symptoms as adolescents with ADHD. Since the area of the brain responsible for self-regulation is underdeveloped during adolescence, lack of sleep can make emotional struggles even worse.

Academic Problems

Inadequate sleep can make it difficult for teens to concentrate and retain knowledge, which can lead to disciplinary problems and academic underperformance. In one study, high school students with poor grades got about 25 minutes less sleep and went to bed about 40 minutes later than teens who got As and Bs.

Why Aren’t Teens Getting Enough Sleep?

A combination of biology and environment makes it difficult for teens to get a healthy amount of sleep. Some of the main culprits include:

Technology use.

Between texting, watching videos, doing schoolwork and playing games, the average teen spends 7.5 hours on screens each day. Screen time also interferes with sleep because electronics emit a blue light that tells the brain to produce less melatonin, the chemical that makes us feel tired. Teens already produce less melatonin, so technology use compounds the problem.


During adolescence, sleep hormones and circadian rhythms shift, driving teens to stay awake into the night, often 11pm or later.

Lack of time.

Homework, socializing with friends, extracurricular activities and part-time jobs can keep teens busy most of the evening. They may stay up late trying to unwind after a stressful day.

Early school start times.

Contrary to the advice of sleep experts, most high schools start early for budgetary reasons. Many studies and initiatives are underway to address the issue, but for now, most students are stuck in a system that ignores adolescent physiology.

Tips for Getting Enough Sleep

Much of the same advice that applies to adults can help teens get enough sleep. Here are our four top tips for improving sleep hygiene.

1. Limit exposure to artificial light.

Turn off electronics earlier in the night – at least one hour before bedtime. A large study connected high levels of indoor and outdoor artificial light at night with less sleep and a higher risk of mood disorders in teens. Reading, coloring, and drawing are good substitutes for screen time before bed.

2. Keep a consistent schedule.

Going to bed and waking up at the same time, even on weekends, will help teens regulate their sleep rhythms.

3. Stay active.

People sleep better and have more energy if they get at least 2.5 hours of exercise each week.

4. Skip night-time sweets and caffeine.

Eating sugary foods at night raises and then lowers blood sugar, which stimulates brain chemicals that can wake teens up in the middle of the night. Likewise, caffeine’s stimulant effects make it difficult to fall asleep and stay asleep.

If Those Don’t Work, Seek Professional Support

Teens naturally want to fall asleep later. But sleep deprivation is not a normal part of adolescence. Getting enough sleep improves teens’ mental health and well-being. If you’re concerned about your teen’s sleep habits or mental health, talk to your doctor, a therapist, or a counselor at a teen mental health program or treatment center.

Our Behavioral Health Content Team

We are an expert team of behavioral health professionals who are united in our commitment to adolescent recovery and well-being.

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