Vince Algieri used to have a regular bedtime – back when he had school to attend and hockey to play.
Before the pandemic, the 15-year-old went to sleep between 10 p.m. and 11 p.m. Now, he’s usually awake until nearly four in the morning; most nights you’ll find him in the basement of his house in Vaughan, north of Toronto, playing video games online with friends. “There are times when I feel I just need to get away from the family and be by myself," he says. “This is a perfect time to hang out and do stuff.”
Ask any teenager these days and they’ll likely tell you the same thing: They’ve gone nocturnal.
Without the need to wake up in time for school, and with parents reluctant to add to the already significant stress families are under by trying to enforce prepandemic bedtimes, many teenagers are staying up until the wee hours.
The good news is that it’s nothing to be concerned about – sleep experts say teenagers are naturally nocturnal, and allowing them to stay up late might even be healthy for their development.
Natural sleep cycles are determined by our circadian rhythm, a sort of internal clock that regulates when we feel sleepy and wakeful. “For teenagers, there’s this tendency for the clock to delay,” says Dr. Jerome Alonso, medical director of Canadian Sleep Consultants in Calgary. Studies have shown the teenage brain doesn’t begin to release melatonin, a hormone that makes us feel drowsy, until 11 p.m. or midnight, a few hours later than most adults.
Although sleeping in and feeling unable to get out of bed can sometimes be a sign of issues such as depression, staying up late is usually only considered a problem when it interferes with daily life, Dr. Alonso says. “With teenagers, it becomes a problem when they have to accommodate for school times,” he says.
Tyson Britton, a 14-year-old who lives in Guelph, Ont., only has an hour of school work to do each day and no set schedule. He used to go to sleep around 10:30 p.m. Now he’s usually up watching videos and listening to music in his room until sometime between 1 a.m. and 3 a.m. “I just like having the time to myself,” he says. “I’ve never been inside this much for, like, forever. I’ve always been the person that’s always outside with their friends. This is really tough."
Tyson’s father, Todd Britton, says there’s enough stress in everyone’s lives without having to enforce an earlier bedtime. “Because we don’t have school, we sort of fell in to this, ‘Well, let’s go with the path of least resistance until we figure it out,’” he says. “It’s tough with teenagers when you have to be on them for everything already."
Janet Rhude stopped enforcing bedtimes for her two teenage sons weeks ago. “At first I thought it was bad, and then you think, But there’s nothing to do the next day,” says Ms. Rhude, an elementary school teacher who lives near Peterborough, Ont.
Her 14-year-old son now stays up well past midnight. “He talks online to a friend, and they do their Grade 8 work together,” she says.
Ms. Rhude doesn’t even know what time her 17-year-old son is going to sleep, but it must be late, considering when he finally wakes up. “Some days he’s in bed until well past noon,” she says.
Both kids are doing their school work, and with little else for them to do, Ms. Rhude isn’t going to make them go to sleep earlier, since it would likely only cause unnecessary friction. "What’s the point? It’s just not worth the fight,” she says.
Giving teenagers the independence to stay up late and socialize with friends during the pandemic may actually be a good thing, says Allan Findlay, a Toronto-based therapist.
Teenagers need a sense of autonomy, time to reflect and to socialize with friends. They usually get the chance to do that at school or during extracurricular activities. Now, however, they might only have the opportunity to talk to friends online or just spend time alone late at night, Mr. Findlay says.
Still, parents should know how kids are spending those hours after midnight – making sure they’re not talking to strangers in chat rooms or engaging in other potentially harmful online activity, Mr. Findlay says. “The point is to be able to have a discussion with them about what they’re doing.
As long as there are no red flags, says Mr. Findlay, parents should let them be. “Parenting teenagers is difficult enough,” he says. “They want to be freer to make their own choices."
While it’s easy for many teenagers to stay up late, says Dr. Alonso, readjusting their sleep schedules takes time – typically 15 or 30 minutes a day. That means that when school does resume, it’ll likely take most teenage night owls at least a week or two to get back on track.
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