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Sleep Problems Increasing in Adolescents

Insomnia and sleep problems are increasing in young people around the world.

In a recent article, Dr. Dee Muller from the Massey University Sleep Wake Research Centre, highlighted that research from New Zealand and overseas indicates that 25 - 30 percent of young people appear to have issues with their sleep.  This is supported by the findings of a University of Otago study which surveyed more than 4,000 young New Zealanders and established that 39 percent of adolescents were getting less than the recommended hours of sleep and 57 percent reported poor sleep quality.

Sleep is important for all of us but especially young people.  A lack of sleep or poor quality sleep negatively affects learning, concentration at school and memory.  Additionally "sleep issues are associated with poorer mental health outcomes, including anxiety, low mood and attention difficulties.  Research also indicates that insufficient sleep duration seems to play a role in the risk of obesity" - a growing issue in all sectors of New Zealand society.

All young men have examinations during term 4.  Working to establish good sleep routines is an important part of their preparation for these and will help them to be able to perform at their best in these important assessments.

Dr. Muller identifies sleep, healthy food and exercise as the three pillars that are needed to be both mentally and physically healthy.  And the good news is that we can control all three of these pillars - small changes in our lifestyle and that of our children, regardless of their age will have an immediate positive impact on both our physical and metal health.

Dr. Muller explains that international evidence supports a connection between technology use and sleep: 

"Technology can be great, but like anything in relation to sleep, you need to be mindful of the timing.  The timing and consistency of what we do when we are awake all make a difference to our sleep."  

Avoiding technology use prior to going to bed and removing screens from bedrooms will likely not be a popular move with young men, but it will make a significant difference.

The latest Brainwave Review Newsletter from the Brainwave Trust Moderation in all things: Adolescents and digital technology - explores the impact of technology on many aspects of teenager's lives, including sleep.

Advice from the Ministry of Health to help teenagers sleep better:

Bedtime routine

  • Have a regular bedtime routine: this might include having a shower, brushing your teeth, then heading to bed. Quiet activities, like reading, are good before bed.
  • Have a regular bedtime and wake up time, including on the weekends (+/- 2 hours). This will make it easier to get up for school on Monday mornings!
  • If you are going to bed too late, gradually change this by going to bed 30 minutes earlier and getting up 30 minutes earlier.
  • Try to do your study earlier in the afternoon/evening.
  • Avoid active games, playing outside and screen use (eg, TV, internet, electronic games, etc) in the hour before bedtime. Try dimming the lights earlier.

Sleeping environment

  • Arrange a comfortable sleeping environment. The place where you sleep should be quiet, warm and dark.
  • Don’t have any distractions within sight or hearing of the area where you sleep, including TV or any kind of computer screen. Turn off your phone before you go to bed so you are not tempted to keep checking it.


  • Try to avoid eating meals within 1 to 2 hours of going to bed.
  • Avoid caffeinated drinks like energy drinks, coffee, and tea – especially in the afternoon/evening – as they can affect your sleep.

Keeping active

  • Being active throughout the day can help you sleep. Time spent in bright sunlight, such as being active outside, can also help, but don’t forget to be SunSmart!

Things that might affect your sleep

  • Illness can affect your sleep. If you discover that you snore a lot or stop breathing for short periods while you’re asleep, discuss this with your GP.
  • Irregular sleep and insufficient sleep can be a symptom of depression. Discuss this with your GP.

Tips for parents

  • Lead by example – research shows that adults have a big influence on younger people in their household. Role model the behaviour that you would like your teenagers to follow. You need to eat well, be active, have some screen-free time and not stay up too late.
  • Encourage your children to do their homework earlier in the evening if possible so they don’t need to stay up late.
  • Disconnect the Wi-Fi after a certain hour each night.
  • Try to keep the weekend sleep and meal times similar to the weekdays (within a couple of hours).

Ministry of Health Advice: