Here’s Why Adults Think Teenagers Sleep Too Much

The teenage ability to sleep past noon is one of the great joys of adolescence. It’s also one of the great headaches of parenthood. On weekends parents are up bright and early, but try as they might, they can’t get their teenage children to make use of the morning hours.

A simple explanation for why adults don’t sleep in is that they have responsibilities. There are things to do that are more important than sleep. Teenagers, on the other hand, have nothing better to do.

But data from a new study by researchers at the Max Planck Institute suggests another important difference between sleep for teenagers and sleep for adults: An exceptionally long night’s sleep may make teenagers feel better but make adults feel worse.

The study was simple. A total of 397 participants ages 12 to 88 kept track of their sleep for a period of 9 days or more. In addition, six times each day, and at least two hours apart, they completed a phone-based questionnaire about their affect. As expected, people of all ages felt worse when they slept for a below average length of time. (“Average” in this context is a person’s average nightly sleep during the tracking period.)

But the researchers were not just interested in sleep deprivation. They wanted to investigate all deviations from an average night of sleep, and that meant examining how people felt when they slept an above-average amount of time.

The researchers found that for adolescents, there was a positive linear relationship between sleep and positive affect. Compared to an average night of sleep, adolescents felt better with one extra hour, even better with two extra hours, and even better with three extra hours. The more the merrier.

However, for the elderly and middle-aged adults, too much sleep led to less well-being. Instead of there being a linear relationship between sleep duration and positive affect, the relationship resembled an inverted U. A night of below-average sleep left adults feeling worse than average, but so did a night in which they slept three hours more than usual. If adults think it’s a bad idea for kids to sleep until noon, that’s because for adults it actually is a bad idea.

So parents, next time you want to scold your child for being late to a 2 pm lunch, remember that they’re doing it for their emotional well-being. And teenagers, next time you want to scold your parents for lamely doing the taxes at 8 am on a Sunday, remember that for them extra sleep is not a bottomless well of positive emotion.
Wrzus, C., Wagner, G.G., & Riediger, M. (2014). Feeling Good When Sleeping In? Day-To-Day Associations Between Sleep Duration and Affective Well-Being Differ From Youth to Old Ag Emotion DOI: 10.1037/a0035349

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