New study on adolescents' experience of sleeping difficulties

Some 35 years ago, a survey was conducted in which only one in ten adolescents responded that they went to bed after 11 PM on weekdays. Three years ago, it was six in ten. Malin Jakobsson sees that sleep deprivation is well researched from a quantitative perspective, but that there are few studies that take a qualitative approach.

“Many adults probably think that adolescents who do not sleep enough are careless with their routines, that they are glued to their devices. This may be so, to some extent. But we must also ask why that is, and how they experience it, when they are stay up late at night,” said Malin Jakobsson, who is trained as a school nurse.

In-depth interviews with adolescents aged 14-15 present a picture of how they experience sleeping difficulties. They speak of feelings of frustration, desperation, anxiety, sadness, and fear. About ideas that the lack of sleep is something normal for teenagers, which in turn means that they do not seek help.

“Most reported that they went to bed at 22-23 and only fell asleep at 01-02 at night. That means a lot of hours lying there, struggling with sleep. When the lack of sleep makes itself apparent during the daytime, they feel like a worse version of themselves and they have to work hard to have enough energy,” said Malin Jakobsson.

In her study, she describes how adolescents live in a system in which external circumstances such as school, friends, family, social media, norms, and values have an effect. At the same time, biology means shifts in their sleep. This means that they get tired later, but still have to get up for school just as early.

Struggle to live up to requirements

“What has really struck me has been how they put such high demands on themselves. They feel that they should be good at school, be good friends, and make their parents happy. They struggle a lot to live up to these external and internal requirements. At the same time, they are in the middle of a development in which they are trying to find themselves,” said Malin Jakobsson.

From the adult world often comes conventional advice, such as putting away your mobile phone and going to bed on time, but the adolescents' reports show the importance of adapting advice to each individual.

“All adolescents are different. It would be silly if I, as a school nurse, or other adult, were to tell the adolescent with difficulty sleeping to exercise and get more daylight, if it is in fact choosing a high school that they are stressed about. We must listen to the concerns of adolescents before we give advice. At the same time, the general advice that research has shown benefits sleep is, of course, quite important in health promotion work.”

One of the most important conclusions of the study is that adolescents are active in looking for and trying strategies to sleep better, but that they have difficulty maintaining them.

“Adolescents are not careless or lazy. They try, for example, to set aside their mobile phones, but maybe only once in a while and not for three straight weeks. Here, they need the support of adults for long-term strategies,” said Malin Jakobsson.

By listening to and talking with their adolescents, parents can have good suggestions, such as helping adolescents with routines (even if they are aged 15) or supporting them in agreeing with their classmates not to contact each other after 10 PM. Other adolescents may need to sleep with a parent or teddy bear to feel secure.

"Fills a knowledge gap"

Malin Jakobsson's study was shared on Linkedin by Michael Gradisar, one of the world's leading researchers on children and adolescents sleep, with the exclamation "Bloody wonderful!"

“It is great that the study has received attention; this is proof that our research is good and fills a knowledge gap. I hope that our studies and my forthcoming doctoral thesis can highlight adolescent's experiences and thus contribute new knowledge to the work of promoting adolescent's sleep. By supporting adolescents' sleep, we also promote their health, well-being, and education,” said Malin Jakobsson.

Read more

The article “I want to sleep, but I can’t”: Adolescents’ lived experience of sleeping difficulties

The research area The Human Perspective in Care