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Teens Spread Lack of Sleep

Teenagers Lack of Sleep

Just recently I wrote about how lack of morning light keeps teens up at night. Now it turns out there may be something else to blame for the midnight escapades of your kid: his or her friends. The story is as old as Leave it to Beaver, that old television show where the rascal Eddie Haskell continually got his hapless friends Wally and Beaver Cleaver into trouble. In fact, parents of teens gone bad often blame it on “the influence” of bad friends, and now a new study adds some fuel to that argument.

It turns out that, according to research at the University of California, San Diego and Harvard University, lack of sleep is contagious among teens. The researchers tracked the sleep habits of 8000 seventh to twelfth graders. They found that a teen with a friend who sleeps fewer than seven hours is 11 times more likely to sleep fewer than seven hours.

To unravel the sleep and pot smoking habits of teens, the researchers mapped the tangled web of connections between each teen in the study and his or her friends. At the center of these connections was a “gang of sleepless boys,” and the more centrally connected a teen was (in other words, the more “cool”), the more likely he or she also slept fewer than seven hours a night. Translated into the language of today’s youth, the less sleep you get, the more phat (pimpin’, off the heezy, chron, boom ting) you are.

Study leader James Fowler, political scientist at the University of California, San Diego, said that as sleep deprivation spreads throughout a “friend” network, so does drug use. The researchers found that teens with a friend who sleeps fewer than seven hours per night are 19% more likely to use marijuana. Having a friend who smokes pot makes a teen 42% more likely to use pot herself. And the contagious effects of both lack of sleep and drug use have impact up to four degrees of separation away. Fowler and his team state that they do not know why this happens. (It seems they’re blissfully unaware of the “Eddie Haskell” factor.) So to “uncover” the reasons for the contagious effects, they want to access teens “directly” via Facebook.

But as I’ve written so recently, there are plenty of reasons kids stay up late and those reasons may go hand-in-hand with the contagion of other night owls. Perhaps Dr. Fowler should have looked at the 2006 survey by the National Sleep Foundation, which showed that only 20% of children were getting an optimal amount of sleep and that the more electronic devices a child has in his bedroom, the less sleep he tends to get.

Then there was the highly suggestive study published in Pediatrics in August of 2009. The study looked at the correlations between technology use, caffeine use, and nocturnal sleep duration among 100 teens, 12 to 18 years-of-age, in a suburban medical practice in the Northeast. The teens came from families with a median income of $51,000 and were of mixed races. Not surprisingly, the study showed that the majority of those teens regularly used some combination of electronic devices after 9 PM at night. Eighty percent watched some TV, 24 percent played video games, and 55 percent used the Internet. According to the study, the average teen used a combination of four forms of technology after 9 PM.

The study authors also created a “multitasking index” which correlated the number of technologies used and the duration of use after 9 PM. Again, not surprisingly, the more multitasking a teen did after 9 PM the higher their caffeine use. What was surprising was the fact that the correlation between multitasking and lack of sleep was higher than the correlation between caffeine use and lack of sleep. So maybe Dr. Fowler’s answer is that kids who stay up doing their homework, while on Facebook, texting on their cell phones, and listening to their Ipods, are going to be sleepy during the daytime and will pass that sleepiness through their networks because ALL of the kids are doing roughly the same stuff, and in addition, they probably grabbed a vente Frappucino on the way home from school. After all, who are they texting or playing video games with but their “stay awake” friends? Incidentally, they may also be smoking doobies in their bedrooms, and with the new vaporizing smoking devices you won’t ever smell it, making it more likely that their friends will be doing the same. (Whatever happened to just sticking a towel under the door?)

Also as I wrote recently, lack of sleep may cause depression and suicidal thoughts in teens, as a recent study out of Columbia University attests. According to lead study author James Gangwisch, teens whose parents let them go to bed after midnight were 24% more likely to be depressed and 20% more likely to have contemplated suicide than their peers whose parents made them go to bed at or before 10 PM. Gangwisch argues, “Our results strengthen the argument that lack of sleep can cause depression as opposed to simply being a symptom of depression. Adequate quality sleep could therefore be a preventative measure against depression and a treatment for depression.”

Lack of sleep in teens has also been associated with poorer performance in school, increased incidence of ADHD and other psychopathologies, and increased incidence of automobile accidents and injury. Other studies have shown a link between lack of sleep and obesity, and once again the study points the finger at the use of electronic technology as a culprit. 

On the bright side, now parents have something else to blame on the bad influence of friends instead of the genes they passed on to their own teens. If their kid gets caught smoking pot after midnight, they can now point to the influence of that Eddie Haskell reincarnation down the street.