Parents and educators regularly lament the amount of sleep today’s teenagers get. Throw in overt or even subtle forms of racial and ethnic discrimination, and a good night’s sleep can become even harder for minority teens, according to a recent study by California State University, Northridge child and adolescent development professor Virginia Huynh.
The adverse effects of the discrimination can be mitigated, the study found, in teens who feel a strong sense of belonging to their school.
“We know adolescence is filled with stress and teens are already struggling to get enough sleep each night,” Huynh said. “If you are a minority teenager and receive unfair treatment based on race or ethnicity, that only adds to the problem, and getting a good night’s sleep is even harder.
“Adolescence is hard enough,” she continued. “Teens are trying to figure out who they are; what their role in the world is; and what it means to be a man or a woman. But if you also have to navigate what it means to be a minority and a teen of color, the stress may get worse and can have a negative impact on a teenager’s ability to sleep well, which in turn can adversely impact their health.”
Huynh conducted the study, “Discrimination and Sleep: The Protective Role of School Belonging,” with her colleague, Cari Gillen-O’Neel, a doctoral student in developmental psychology at UCLA. Published last fall by Sage Publications, it is among the first to examine how being a victim of even “minor” acts of discrimination can adversely impact a teenager’s sleep pattern. The pair specifically chose to study the impact such acts would have on Latino and Asian adolescents because so little research has been done on those communities.
“Our findings would likely be the same if we looked at African-American teens,” Huynh said.
While the researchers expected to find that overt discrimination would adversely impact a teen’s ability to sleep, Huynh said their study is among the first to document associations between “microaggressions” — subtle ways that racial, ethnic, gender and other stereotypes can play out in an increasingly diverse culture — and sleep.
“[The study] provides additional evidence that seemingly harmless questions and interactions may, in fact, not be harmless at all,” she said.
Huynh said she suspects that many people will be surprised by the study’s findings.
“Most people tend to think that discrimination doesn’t exist any more, and if it does, then it’s not a big deal,” she said. “But if you’re a teenager it can have a major impact. The teen years are when brain maturation takes place and a good night’s sleep is important to that process. Sleep is an important factor in all aspects of a person’s health. Even innocuous acts of discrimination can affect a teenager’s ability to sleep, and in turn, their health.”
Huynh said she believes school officials can play a role in easing the impact of the discrimination.
“School belonging can be a protective resource for adolescents,” she said. “Teens spend so much of their lives at school, and if the kids are getting sources of support at school, a place where they can talk honestly about what is happening, then they may be better able to cope.”
Something as simple as having a role model in the school, such as a minority teacher or school administrator, might help students feel that they are not alone, she said.
“If there is someone at the school, like a teacher, who they can identify with and start a conversation with about what it’s like to be a person of color trying to navigate all the expectations and stereotypes society puts on teens, teens might feel more connected and respected at school, which might make a difference,” she said.
Below is a video of Huynh talking about the changing face of racism.