September 24, 2013.
Dim lights may be ticket to a better night’s sleep.
Dim lights, board games and no bedside electronics: An old-fashioned sleepover? Not exactly. This overnight takes place at UC Berkeley and involves dozens of undergraduate research assistants, some in white lab coats and goggles, who collect saliva samples to gauge the hormone levels of teenage night owls.
The campus’ Teen Sleep Study is a unique four-year experiment to reset the biological clocks of adolescents who have trouble going to sleep and waking up. It’s specifically aimed at 10-to-18-year-olds whose bedtimes range between 10:40 p.m. and midnight. Most participants are between ages 14 and 16 and some have reported bedtimes later than 2 a.m. To qualify, sleep-deprived teens must also suffer from one or more emotional, social, behavioral or academic problem.
“Huge numbers of kids want to come here to get this treatment,” said Allison Harvey, a psychology professor and principle investigator of the Teen Sleep Study, which is conducted at the Golden Bear Sleep and Mood Research Clinic. “They’re using electronics or doing homework until late at night, and so we’re looking at ways to help them wind down earlier. Some of them are stuck in vicious cycles and they need help.”
With easy access to Facebook, Twitter, tablets and smartphones, not to mention later curfews and bedtimes, the need for sustained quality slumber among youth is reaching a critical mass. Earlier this month, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan put in a plug for later school start times, arguing that the teenage brain has trouble rallying in the early mornings.
“One of the common things we hear from the teenagers is that they try to get to bed earlier, but can’t get to sleep, or they have trouble getting their day started. It’s stressful for everyone in the family,” said Kerrie Hein, director of the Golden Bear Sleep and Mood Research Clinic and the study’s chief logistics czar.
Friday, Sept. 20, marked the semester’s first overnighter for 27 new recruits. After eating dinner, they arrived at the campus’s Tolman Hall with pajamas, toothbrush, books and homework in hand. There to get them settled in for the night were their “sleep buddies,” undergraduate research assistants whose job it is to support study participants and keep them engaged and on task.
“You have to keep them entertained – else they might get bored – while still maintaining professionalism in that we’re here to run a study and collect data,” said Ben Greenberg, a junior majoring in psychology and the sleep buddies team leader.
The Teen Sleep Study piloted in fall 2012 with a half-dozen teenagers and began in earnest this spring with eight participants. At least two dozen teens are expected to complete the study this fall, and at least 170 by the time the study ends in 2016, at which time the results will be reported. Advertised on fliers and in school newsletters and online communities such as the Berkeley Parents Network, among other venues, it’s generating a lot of interest among sleep-deprived San Francisco Bay Area families.