Stanford Looks to Increase Sleep in Teens

by Chad Ho ’22

You are floating in the comforting blackness of a dreamless sleep. Suddenly, your phone stirs to life, sending you back into the bleak world of your 15×10 dorm room. In the distance you can hear the monotony of identical alarms from your floormates’ phones as you join a line of sleep-deprived students shuffling towards the bathroom to start their day. This is the picture of almost every home and dormitory of the modern American high school system.

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Sleep is quite crucial in the development of young people; however sleep continues to be neglected by the young population, resulting in a variety of health issues ranging from increased agitation to substance abuse. The National Sleep Foundation finds that while teenagers require an average of 8 – 10 hours of sleep a night, however less than 15% receive this much on a regular basis.

A lack of sleep is something young people are far too familiar with; not only is waking up the least favorite part of many young people’s days, but it is often the root of many issues in today’s youth; which is why scientists from Stanford School of Medicine have been looking for ways to increase sleep in teens today.

Through the use of light therapy, a team of investigators from the Stanford Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Studies, found that sleep in teens could be extended for an average of 43 minutes.Dr. Jamie Zeitzer, PhD, led the study by administering 3-millisecond flashes of light every 20 seconds to sleeping teenagers for the final two hours of sleep, which adjusted their circadian clock – the internal system in mammals which synchronises the body’s functions with the time of day. The experiment aimed to change the body’s sleep schedule by essentially adjusting it to behave in accordance with different time zones. 

“Our team wondered if we could adjust the circadian timing,” said Dr. Zeitzer, a leading expert in psychology and the behavioral sciences, “having teens essentially move their brains to Denver while they’re living in California.” 1

What the Stanford team found in the initial four-week phase was that while the light therapy was successful in adjusting the body’s internal clock, the 72 recruited teenagers in the experiment continued to sleep late due to a variety of factors such as homework, digital exposure and social media. 

During the second four-week phase of the experiment, researchers supplemented the light therapy with cognitive behavioral therapy. The second phase brought 30 new teenagers who received individual attention from mental health and sleep psychologists in the form of four 1-hour sessions aimed at identifying how sleep would benefit each individual and using it to motivate teenagers to get more sleep.

Individuals who participated in the second phase with both forms of therapy found themselves sleeping up to 50 minutes earlier and were six times more effective at maintaining proper sleep schedules.

Unfortunately the device used to administer light therapy is limited to the upper echelons of sleep research, Dr. Zeitzer advises that for now the most important part of improving sleep schedules is to expand cognitive behavioral therapy. But his research shows that fortunately there is hope for today’s youth in escaping the stresses of today, and maybe getting a good night’s sleep.


Digitale, Emily. “Teens sleep 43 more minutes per night after combo of two treatments, study finds” Stanford Medicine New Centre, 25 Sept. 2019.

National Sleep Foundation. Children, Teens & Sleep, Insomnia, Narcolepsy, Sleep Tools & Tips. Teens and Sleep, 2019,