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American Youth Desperate for Some Zzzzs

By Meghan Vivo

Americans love quick solutions – and so do our kids. Ate too much? Take some antacids. Feeling anxious? Ask the doctor for a prescription. Stressed at school and can’t sleep? Take a sleeping pill. 

Young people today report feeling more stressed than ever, and as a result, are turning more frequently to sleeping aids and prescription medications for relief. 

In a study by Medco Health Solutions, a large managed care company, researchers found that sleep medication usage was up by 85 percent since 2000. Aside from over-the-counter sleep aids, the types of sleeping pills often prescribed for young people include antihistamines, antidepressants, and benzodiazepines like Valium, as well as newer options such as Sonata, Ambien, and Lunesta. 

Recent reports have suggested that many of these sleep aids have a high potential for abuse. Ambien, for example, has become a favorite new party pill among teens. Called “A-Minus,” “zombie pills,” or “tic-tacs” on the street, Ambien can be deadly when taken with alcohol, and has reportedly been used as a new form of date rape drug. 

In addition to the risk of abuse and addiction, doctors are admittedly unsure of the appropriate dosage to prescribe for teens’ growing brains and bodies. “The absurdity of this is that a lot of times we’re put in a position of saying, ‘Well, I guess we’ll just give them half the adult dose,’” Dr. Judith Owens, the director of the Pediatric Sleep Disorders Clinic at Hasbro Children’s Hospital, in Providence, R.I., told The Consumer. “We’re sort of flying by the seat of our pants here.”

Late to Bed, Early to Rise 

Teenagers are notorious for staying up late at night, texting, watching television, playing video games, and talking on the phone. And in some ways, this is natural. Adolescents are biologically programmed to want to stay up later, often until 11 p.m. or later, and sleep later in the morning. But they are required to get up early for school and have to find time for homework and studying in addition to social and personal time.Despite the shift in internal clock, teenage bodies still require about nine or 10 hours of sleep per night. However, more than 25 percent of teens report sleeping only 6 1/2 hours a night or less, according to the National Sleep Foundation.

Sleep-Deprived College Students

Teenagers aren’t the only ones desperate for sleep. A study released in January 2009 by healthcare business Thomson Reuters found that the use of prescription medication among college students has nearly tripled in the past eight years. In 1998 only 599 per 100,000 individuals used sleeping pills; in 2006, the number jumped to 1,524 per 100,000 users. Not only are more Americans taking sleeping pills, but they’re using them for an average of 3 months – 40 percent longer than in 1998.

“Insomnia, a condition traditionally associated with older adults, appears to be causing larger numbers of young adults to turn to prescription sleep aids, and to depend on them for longer periods of time,” William Marder, the senior vice president and general manager of Thomson Reuters, said in a press release.  

Some researchers believe that college-aged students may be turning to sleeping pills as an unhealthy way to cope with psychological disorders such as anxiety, depression, eating disorders, and substance abuse. Other researchers hypothesize that more college-aged students are suffering from insomnia. Whatever the cause, the primary concern is that many sleep aids are habit-forming, and long-term use can lead to addiction. 

Solutions, Not Medications 

Sleep is one of our few basic necessities. Rather than turning to medication as a quick fix, doctors recommend that parents investigate the reasons behind their child’s sleeping problem. There could be an underlying medical or psychological condition, or you may need to evaluate whether certain activities or stresses can be eliminated from an over-booked schedule. 

“Insomnia is a symptom, not a disorder,” Dr. Owens told The Consumer. “It’s like pain. You’re not going to give a patient pain medication without figuring out what’s causing the pain.” 

Experts believe that insomnia is primarily a learned behavior that can be unlearned using some of the following techniques: 

  • Help your children set a regular sleep schedule and insist that they fall asleep only in their beds.
  • Encourage your child to avoid long naps during the daytime.
  • Remove clutter from your teens’ bedrooms and adjust the lighting to be dim at night and bright in the morning.
  • Avoid planning big meals within a few hours of bedtime.
  • Set up a relaxing bedtime routine by reading a book or taking a warm shower right before bed rather than listening to loud music, playing video games, or talking on the phone.
  • Encourage your child to exercise or take a walk after school so that he feels ready for bed.
  • Limit caffeinated drinks and late-night social events.

If you are the parent of a struggling teen or are a sleep-deprived high school or college student, get help for the underlying causes of your insomnia before you develop serious complications or a dependency on sleeping pills or other prescription medications. Seek professional help if you’re worried that you’ve already developed a drug habit or need treatment for insomnia or other conditions. 

Although many young people consider sleeping a waste of precious time, countless sleepless nights can result in mood swings and behavioral problems, clumsiness, hormonal changes, impaired motor skills and nervous system function, trouble concentrating, compromised immune function, and reduced productivity at school or work. Covering the source of the problem with sleeping aids will only delay finding a solution, or worse, may result in dependency or drug addiction.



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