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What the heck is social jet lag and why it’s harmful to your teen

Sleeping Teenager for Activity Jet Lag in Children

Does this sound like your teenager – stays up late on the weekend and sleeps in the next day or takes frequent naps to “catch up” on some Zs.

If this describes your child to a “T” you’re not alone. This is typical teenage behavior. The problem though is just one weekend of sleeping late can put your teen in a social jet lag mode. (And if they’ve been following this sleep pattern all summer long, getting back in a routine may take some time.)

What is social jet lag?

Social jet lag, a term coined by German researcher Till Roennenberg in 2006, is the discrepancy in a person’s sleep pattern between the weekday and the weekend, which can cause a person to feel “jet lagged” or tired and fatigued.

While social jet lag can affect anyone, the problem is particularly common in teenagers. Teenagers are biological “night owls” who tend to go to sleep and get up late when schedules permit, such as on weekends. The problem arises when they are expected to go to sleep and get up early for school on weekdays. 

According to one study, 88% of adolescents report going to bed later on non-school nights, and 44% report going to bed two or more hours later than normal.

How social jet lag impacts health

Basically, there are two forces that determine when we are awake or asleep at any point in time. The first is how long we've been awake, and the longer we're awake the more tired we feel and it's easier to fall asleep.

But, there’s this other force that keeps us awake during the day, which opposes that sleepy force or sleep debt that is building up. This is called our internal body clock or circadian rhythm. Dramatically adjusting the circadian rhythm confuses the body and brain - no longer knowing what time to go to sleep and what time to get up, which makes us feel horrible.

This is exactly what happens to teens that sleep in for multiple hours on the weekends. In fact, teens who go to bed two or more hours later on the weekends (compared to teens who went to bed within two hours of their weekday bedtime) reported having difficulty falling and staying asleep, falling asleep in school and/or while studying, feeling cranky/irritable and sleepy during the day and more difficulty getting along with family members. These kids also drank more caffeine, had worse grades and reported more depressive mood symptoms.

Other potential side effects of social jet lag include:

  • Disturbed sleep (insomnia, early waking or excessive sleepiness)
  • Daytime fatigue
  • Difficulty concentrating or functioning at your usual level
  • Stomach problems (constipation or diarrhea)
  • A general feeling of not being well
  • Behavioral problems
  • Metabolic risk

The good news is social jet lag is reversible and you can help get your child back on track with these helpful tips.

Tips for parents

  • Have your teen wake up at the same time every day.

Consistency is the biggest thing. Even if your teen stays up later on the weekend, they should wake up within an hour of two of when they normally get up during the week. This means if your child gets up at 6 a.m. for school, they should be out of bed by 8 a.m. on Saturday and Sunday.

  • Don’t let your teen sleep in.

Our rule of thumb is every hour your teen sleeps in on the weekend it will take a day for the body to adjust. So if your child is sleeping in 3- 5 hours later than normal on the weekend the week is shot before it even begins.

  • Encourage your teen to go to bed earlier.

Getting as little as three more hours of sleep a week can help. We get it – going to bed earlier is easier said than done, and going to bed hours earlier some nights isn’t realistic no matter how tired your teen is that day. However, every little bit helps, and going to bed 30 minutes earlier every night during the week translates to 3.5 hours of extra sleep a week.

  • Give your teen a bedroom conducive to sleep.

Studies have shown that the presentation of the bedroom can have an impact on sleep. Your child’s bedroom should be calming and the bed should be only used for sleeping – not a place to study or hangout with friends.

We know this can be difficult to accomplish. We were once teenagers too, so we get that the bedroom is often the only room in the house where your teenager feels like they have privacy, so you’ll have to get creative. Get beanbags or pillows for the floor, so they have a place to hang out with friends and a desk where they can do their homework.

You’ll also have to sell your kids on the approach, because they won’t see the difference between sitting on a pillow and the bed. That leads us to our next tip.

  • Talk about it.

Having conversations with your teen about social jet lag is important. Those who have a consistent sleep schedule will feel less tired and feel better. When your child feels better, they’re going to be more focused and perform better in school and sports. If your child is sleeping in until noon or 1 p.m. on the weekend they’re missing out, because when they wake up half of the day is already gone.

  • Practice what you preach.

You not only need to talk-the-talk, but walk-the-walk and model good sleeping patterns in your own life as well. It’s much easier if the entire family has a schedule that can be maintained, and if you’re demonstrating change it will carry more clout with your teen.

  • Turn off electronics.

Most likely you’ve heard this one before (and again, easier said than done), but the biggest thing your teen can do is power down electronics 30-60 minutes before bed and do something relaxing that will help get the brain ready for sleep.

Unfortunately, we don’t come with on-and-off switches - we’re more like a dimmer. That means your teen needs to turn that knob before getting in bed to gradually fall asleep.

  • Know the difference between being tired and being lazy.

A lot of time sleeping late and napping is equated with being lazy. If your child is falling asleep during the day, it’s because the body is tired. It has nothing to do with a willful behavior or an intentional behavior, and is very different than the kid that’s not paying attention in class or drifting off in thought.

  • Make changes now.

It’ll take at least two weeks (possibly longer) for your teenager to get back on track, especially if they’ve been sleeping in all summer.

The fast, but painful, way is to just rip the Band-Aid off and dramatically adjust your child’s sleep schedule. Start having your teen go to bed at the same time every night and wake up at the same time every morning – even on weekends.

You can also take the gradual approach. If your child wakes up at 11 a.m. on the weekends then have them get up at 10 a.m. the next weekend and then 9 a.m. the following weekend. It’s a slower process, but is just as effective. It really depends on what method works best for your family.

  • If you’re struggling to make changes, get help.

Teenagers should get 8-10 hours of sleep per every 24 hours, on a regular basis, to promote optimal health.

If your teenager isn’t getting enough sleep or is suffering from social jet lag – get help. It’s a fixable problem and your pediatrician or specialist can help your family make the changes necessary.

Learn more about Sleep Tips and other resources.

Learn more about Pulmonary and Sleep Medicine at Children’s Mercy.

Pediatric Sleep Medicine

Associate Program Director, Pediatric Sleep Medicine Fellowship; Associate Professor of Pediatrics, University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Medicine; Education Associate Professor of Pediatrics, University of Kansas School of Medicine

Child Psychology

Associate Professor of Pediatrics, University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Medicine