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Keith Davis

There is a new name for young people who get too little sleep: zombie teens. Many experts in the field have adopted this nickname for them due to their lethargic behavior.

Both the National Sleep Foundation (NSF) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say this phenomenon, a dangerous lack of sleep, has become commonplace in today's culture and it is considered a gigantic problem among today's American youth. The symptoms most common with sleep-deprived kids include impaired memory, irritability, anxiety, depression, sluggish behavior, weakened physical performance and weight gain.

According to the NSF, teenagers require between eight to 10 hours of sleep each night to be healthy and functioning at normal capacity. Yet experts at NSF say there are few getting anywhere remotely close to that much rest. Dr. Amie M. Gordon, a scholar in social personality psychology at the University of California, emphasizes that sleep deficiency negatively shapes a person's personality and disposition. She states, "Researchers have found that people who are more sleep deprived report feeling less friendly, elated, [or] empathic, and report a generally lower positive mood." She adds that sleep denial can also dampen an individual's capability to recognize any emotional benefits from a positive experience.

Corrie Cutrer, an author for Focus on the Family and expert on the subject, agrees, maintaining that a lack of sleep decreases a teen's capacity to fathom cause-and-effect, or to rationally reason through certain life decisions. Cutrer states, "It can lead to a teen's inability to adjust to or recover from challenging life events, such as a difficult math class or a painful relationship."

Sleep specialists have found a strong association between sleep deprivation and an increased risk of childhood obesity. One report from 2007 states that kids who slept less "had a 58 percent higher risk for obesity," with boys having a greater likelihood over girls. Because of this alarming trend, a lack of sleep significantly raises the odds of developing serious health issues such as heart disease, high blood pressure and Type 2 diabetes in children and teens.

Recent research has confirmed that sleep plays a vital role in the human body; sleep essentially provides critical nourishment for the human brain. The NSF clarifies that during normal rest periods, important body functions and cognitive activities transpire that cannot take place adequately otherwise. So, avoiding normal sleep cycles can be dangerous for everyone - but especially for the young, whose bodies and brains are still developing.

Furthermore, sleepiness can make it harder to get along with family members, friends and authority figures; can adversely affect test scores and the ability to concentrate at school; and can even hamper athletic prowess for those who compete in sports programs. Additionally, when a child or teen does not get enough sleep, he or she is more probable to have an accident, injury and/or illness, since a lack of sleep detrimentally affects the immune system.

Here are some other facts from the NSF:

>> Sleep is crucial to your well-being, as important as the air you breathe, the water you drink, and the food you eat. It can even help you to eat better and manage the stress of being a teen.

>> Teens need about eight to 10 hours of sleep each night to function best. However, one study finds that only 15 percent reported sleeping 8 to 8.5 hours on school nights.

>> Teens tend to have irregular sleep patterns across the week, typically staying up late and sleeping in later on the weekends, which affects their biological clocks and hurts the quality of their sleep schedule.

>> Many teens suffer from sleep disorders, such as narcolepsy, insomnia, restless legs syndrome or sleep apnea, which are treatable - so be sure to discuss any concerning symptoms with your pediatrician.

Corrie Cutrer suggests that healthier sleep strategies for children of all ages begin with parental modeling, whereby mothers and fathers demonstrate that sleep is a fundamental part of living a healthy life through their own nightly schedules. Likewise, she recommends limiting evening use of electronic technology, including restricting the time spent watching television, playing video games, texting, surfing the net and interacting with others on social media. For example, smart phones, laptops and iPads can be placed in the parents' room at a specific time each evening, allowing for a technology-free period to be established, while adopting soothing nightly customs, such as having a relaxing bath, a light snack and/or a hot cup of herbal tea before bedtime, as well as "spending a few moments together reading or in prayer."

The bottom line is that there are practical strategies that can forever put an end to the unhealthy zombie-teen phenomenon, once you and your child recognize the importance of doing so. The process of winding down at night takes effort and discipline, no matter what the age. Recognizing that wellness and top daytime performance begins with a healthy night's sleep may be the first step toward resolving the issue.

Columnist Keith Davis has a bachelor of science degree in psychology, Christian counseling emphasis, and minor in Family and Marriage Studies from Liberty University. He is a staff member at Logan Mingo Area Mental Health (LMAMH).

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