Of course we know that blue-light-emitting devices, like laptops or cellphones, can interrupt our natural sleep cycle. But it’s not just their behavior that’s influencing disrupted sleep schedules. School start times often play a role: An early morning bell is actually fighting against the biological clock (it’s been shown that when class starts later, teens perform better). And finally, and most important, teens’ circadian rhythms are naturally set later than kids’ or even adults’.
So what’s a parent to do? A new sleep study from Stanford University School of Medicine published in the JAMA Network Open found that a combination of two treatments helped teens in the study get 43 extra minutes of sleep a night, with a 50-minute earlier bedtime,
“We have a biological drive to stay awake in the hours before we normally go to sleep,” said the study researcher Jamie Zeitzer, Ph.D., associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford. “So our team wondered if we could adjust the circadian timing, having the teens essentially move their brains to Denver while they’re living in California.”
The first treatment was an early morning light-therapy to reset circadian rhythm: A bright, broad-spectrum white light was programmed to deliver 3-millisecond flashes of light every 20 seconds during the last few hours of sleep. This happened in the very early hours of the morning, and study researchers noted that the flashes did not wake the subjects. (Zeitzer had previously done a study on using similar light therapy regarding jet lag; that research showed short flashes of light can help you adjust to a new time zone, even when they occur during sleep.)
“The cool part…is that it is completely passive. We set up the flashing light in the person’s bedroom and put it on a timer; they don’t have to wear a device, remember to turn it on, or do anything else,” says Zeitzer.
While in this first portion of the study—which involved 72 teens and went on for four weeks—the light exposure did make the participants more tired earlier, it didn’t necessarily encourage them to change what time they went to bed.
So what else was to be done? “We had to convince teens to try to go to sleep earlier,” Zeitzer said. And to do this, the researchers used cognitive behavioral therapy. So for the following four weeks of the study—this time with 30 teens—the participants went to four one-hour-long therapy sessions (so, once a week). In these, they were able to discuss stressors in their lives, like school or extracurriculars, and how these might be improved by better sleep hygiene. (Now, Zeitzer notes, the big question is how to deliver brief cognitive behavioral therapy to large numbers of people.)
Only when they were able to combine both the light therapy with the cognitive behavior therapy did they see actual change: the extra 43 minutes of sleep and 50-minute early bedtime noted above. It’s an interesting step in the growing research about light therapy and sleep—as well as therapy and sleep. And it’s especially important because it involves such a vulnerable group, who will only be at more risk for sleep deprivation with evolving technology.
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