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Sleepy Teens May be More Prone to Risky Behavior

In recent years, numerous studies have shown how important it is to get enough sleep.  Sleep deprivation can impact our cognitive function, impair our immune system, and open the door for chronic illnesses like high blood pressure and diabetes.  We all know that drowsy driving causes car accidents and long term sleep disturbances can impact personal relationships.  But can lack of sleep also make you more likely to take unnecessary risks?  New research says yes, especially if you are a teenager.

A new study from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) shows that teenagers who don’t get enough sleep are more likely to engage in risky and unhealthy behaviors.  The Youth Risk Behavior Survey collected data on 12,000 teenagers ranging in age from 12 to 18 and found that the majority of them, nearly 70%, are not getting the sleep they need on a daily basis.  When you add these findings to sleep research that shows the long term health consequences of inadequate or low quality sleep, it seems that the sleep habits of our teenagers are endangering their health.  But that’s not all.

The CDC study also found that teenagers who get less than 8 hours sleep a night on a regular basis are more likely to participate in risky and unhealthy behaviors than their peers who are getting enough sleep.   Teenagers who reported getting less than 8 hours of sleep on average also reported higher instances of the following:

  • Drinking at least one regular soft drink a day
  • Using illegal substances like alcohol or marijuana
  • Exercising less than twice a week
  • Getting in at least one physical altercation
  • Being sexually active
  • Feeling depressed, hopeless, or sad
  • Contemplating suicide

While additional research is needed to prove whether or not there is a causal relationship between sleep deprivation and these behaviors, the trend alone is disturbing for parents everywhere, especially if you factor in that the structure our society imposes on teenagers goes against their biology when it comes to sleep.

The National Sleep Foundation recommends that adolescents and teens get at least 8.5 to 9.25 hours of sleep each night.  Most middle and high schools start between 7 and 8:30 a.m.  Teenagers are biologically programmed to go to sleep later than they did when they were children.  This means that they aren’t just staying up because they want to and going to bed earlier will not necessarily bring a different result.  If the average time a teenager can fall asleep is 11 p.m. and they have to be at school at 7 a.m., it is not physically possible for them to get the sleep they need to be healthy, happy and productive. 

Given this time crunch and the ever increasing wealth of information indicating how big a factor sleep is in health and wellness, parents may wonder what they can do to help.  First, think about joining one of the many groups that are lobbying for later school start times for teenagers.  Second, work with your teenager to establish good sleep habits and a bedtime routine that will get them to sleep as soon as they are able to.  Third, look for times in their day to include a nap and help them structure their activities so that they are getting as much sleep as possible each night.

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