Parents Get It Big Wrong About Teen Sleep and Health – Harvard Gazette

As the new school year begins, Harvard-affiliated sleep health researchers have a message for parents and teen sleep caregivers: You’re wrong.

A study by Brigham and Women’s Hospital researchers enlisted adolescent sleep experts to identify the myths. The researchers then surveyed parents and caregivers, finding that more than two-thirds believed the top three most important sleep myths. These include school start times, the safety of melatonin, and the effects of altered sleep patterns on weekends. In their new paper, published in Sleep Health, the authors examine the prevalence of each myth and present counter-evidence to clarify what is best for health.

“Adolescents face a myriad of barriers when it comes to sleep, some of which are physiological and others behavioral,” said corresponding author Rebecca Robbins, a researcher in the Brigham Division of Sleep and Circadian Disorders and an instructor at Harvard Medical School. “Given these challenges, it is critical to reduce any variable barriers that hinder young people when it comes to sleep. Our goal was to identify common myths about adolescent sleep and to inspire future public and educational efforts to promote evidence-based beliefs about sleep health.

“Caregivers and adolescents commonly turn to the Internet and social media for guidance on topics such as sleep. Although these platforms can be sources of evidence-based information, there is a chance that misinformation can spread on these platforms.

Researchers surveyed 200 parents and caregivers about 10 sleep myths identified by experts. Some of the prevalent myths that Robbins and colleagues identified and deconstructed include:

• “Going to bed and waking up late on weekends is not a big deal for teenagers as long as they get enough sleep during that time.”

Approximately 74 percent of parents/caregivers agree with this myth. But, the researchers explain, fluctuating weekend sleep schedules — also known as “social jetlag” — can worsen sleep and not restore sleep deficits. The authors cite studies showing that variable weekend sleep schedules can lead to lower academic performance, risky behaviors such as excessive alcohol consumption, and increased mental health symptoms.

• “If school starts later, teenagers will stay up that much later.”

About 69 percent of parents/caregivers agree with this myth. Robbins and his colleagues cite numerous studies showing that a delayed start to middle and high school led to significantly more sleep, with extended morning sleep and minimal impact on bedtime.

• “Melatonin supplements are safe for adolescents because they are natural.”

Two-thirds of parents/caregivers believe this myth. While melatonin has become a common supplement for adults and adolescents, there is a lack of long-term studies on its use, particularly regarding the effects of melatonin on puberty and development. The melatonin content of supplements varies widely. The authors also express concern about teens taking melatonin without medical evaluation or supervision and without using behavioral interventions to manage insomnia.

The authors note that their study examined sleep myths among a small sample of parents/caregivers, and future studies of a larger population of parents/caregivers may help to further elucidate beliefs about sleep. Future studies could include adolescents themselves as well as experts from other countries and cultures.

“Future research should aim to counter myths and promote evidence-based beliefs about adolescent sleep,” said senior author Judith Owens, a physician at Boston Children’s Hospital and professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School.

Disclosures: Robbins has worked as a consultant for Denihan Hospitality Group, SleepCycle AB, Rituals Cosmetics BV, Deep Inc. and Wave Sleep Inc. Co-author Lauren Hale received an honorarium from the National Sleep Foundation for her role as editor-in-chief of Sleep Health (between 2015 and 2020). Co-author Michael Grandner has received grants from Kemin Foods, Jazz Pharmaceuticals, and CereZ Technologies, and has received consulting funding from Fitbit, Natrol, Casper, Athleta, and Merck.

Funding: Funding for this work was provided by the NIH/National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, the National Institutes of Health, and the Department of Defense.

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