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Researchers found that youth who don’t get enough sleep are four times more likely to develop depression compared to peers who sleep more.Getty Images/iStockphoto

Parents – and by extension their kids – too often underestimate the importance of getting a good night's sleep, with new research showing lack of sleep can adversely affect teens' mental health.

Researchers at the University of Texas Health Center in Houston tracked the sleep habits of more than 4,000 teens for over a year and found that youth who don't get enough sleep are four times more likely to develop depression compared to peers who sleep more. In a separate report, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention noted that 70 per cent of American high-school students fall well short of its recommended nine to 10 hours of sleep a night.

Nicole McCance, a Harvard-educated psychotherapist and Toronto-based mental health expert, says sleep is crucial to the healthy development of teens' brains. In the last two years, she says she's seen an increase in teens struggling with lack of sleep, and blames social media – with kids online until the wee hours of the night – for the increase.

"Social media puts pressure on teens to stay up late," she says. "You're the unpopular one if you end the chat online to go to bed. Almost all my teens are up until 1 a.m., and then they have school the next morning. Some of my patients will get up in the middle of the night to check texts they've missed. They have this sense that if they don't weigh in, they're missing out."

But lack of sleep, McCance says, leads to lack of motivation and difficulting concentrating, which can exacerbate depression.

"Sleep deprivation causes negative thinking. And it's hard for teens to get out of it, because their body is so tired. It also causes irritability, which parents often attribute to just being a teen and hormonal. Lack of sleep – or no gas in the tank – wears the body down, contributing to depression, sadness, and a general lack of interest in life," she says.

It's a growing problem, says Dr. Azmeh Shahid, a psychiatrist and sleep specialist with Toronto's Youthdale Child and Adolescent Sleep Centre.

She's seen a steady rise in the number of patients who are sleep deprived, a condition that she says often manifests in anxiety, depression and general behavioural difficulties. "More and more kids are coming in with anxiety, and sleep difficulty is usually an inherent part of that," she says.

She blames both sleep disorders and increased anxiety in teens on a variety of social factors, including pressures at school and home, as well as bullying. But for some of her patients, the stimulants they're on to deal with mood disorders are also disrupting their sleep.

"Physically and emotionally, everyone benefits from a good night's sleep," says McCance.

Mental health expert Nicole McCance, who wrote 52 Ways to Beat Depression Naturally, offers a number of tips for parents who want to help their children develop better sleep habits:

Discourage sleeping in on the weekends. It's a fallacy to think you can catch up on sleep.

Encourage teens to get up earlier, which reprograms their bodies, so they are ready to go to bed earlier.

Turn off all electronics an hour before going to bed. Instead, suggest teens listen to mellow music so they're calm before going to sleep.

Consider whether your home is a sleep-friendly environment. Parents should set an example by going to bed earlier, too. Dim the lights an hour before bed. Make sure no one is on phones or computers. Actually talk to your kids in the evening.

Suggest they don't hang out in their rooms all night so they get the idea that the bedroom is a place for sleep only.

Calcium before bed is a natural sedative: Give them warm milk.

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