Sleep Deprivation & Mental Health | Children's Health Blog

Tired Teens Don’t Make the Best Choices


If given the chance, the typical teenager would opt to stay up until 3 a.m. and sleep until noon every day.  But school sort of gets in the way of that…you would think.  Although classes start early, kids still manage to go to bed late. And now a new study has found that more than two-thirds of teens actually get fewer than eight hours of sleep each school night, and this lack of sleep makes them more likely to take up some very bad habits.

The research, from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, determined that there was a greater likelihood of dangerous behaviors among those teenagers regularly sleeping less than eight hours on school nights than for those who get at least eight hours of shut-eye a night.1  The scientists conducted a national survey of 12,000 American teenagers to ask about their sleep habits as well as actions during their waking hours.

With 68.9 percent of the teens reporting that they get less than eight hours of sleep on any given school night, clearly the vast majority are not getting nearly enough rest.  The recommended amount of nightly sleep for a teenager is 9-1/4 hours, according to the National Sleep Foundation.  The kids who don’t sleep enough were found to be more frequently indulging in less-than-ideal pastimes.  In fact, of the 11 health-risk behaviors the researchers monitored — which included use of marijuana, alcohol, and cigarettes — the kids who slept less were more likely to participate in 10 risky behaviors than the kids sleeping eight hours.   When asked about alcohol consumption in the past 30 days, for example, 50.3 percent of those who slept less admitted to drinking, whereas only 36.7 percent of those who slept more did.

The teenagers who slept less than eight hours were also found to be more sexually active, more likely to fight, less likely to exercise, and more prone to consider suicide.  Interestingly, they were more likely than their counterparts to spend more than three hours each day on the computer, but no more likely to spend their time in front of a television.

Studies have shown that during adolescence, puberty can change a teenager’s circadian rhythms, which causes them to feel less sleepy during the evening hours.  Activities that keep them out at night, homework to finish, and socializing with friends can add to the problem, resulting in teens who stay up increasingly later and later.  Then factor in the caffeine and sugar in the energy drinks and sodas many of them consume throughout the day and sometimes night, and it’s almost a wonder that they are able to sleep at all.

And the news gets worse: Research last year at the University of California, San Diego and Harvard University found that lack of sleep is contagious among teens.  The scientists tracked the sleep habits of 8,000 seventh to twelfth graders and discovered that a teen with a friend who sleeps fewer than seven hours is 11 times more likely to sleep fewer than seven hours.  And they also found that as sleep deprivation spreads throughout a “friend” network, so does drug use.  Teens with a friend who sleeps fewer than seven hours per night were also found to be 19 percent more likely to use marijuana.  So both studies show that teenagers who don’t get enough sleep on a daily basis are probably not headed in the direction their parents would like.

As parents, what can we do about it?  Anyone who has a teenager in their house is well aware that trying to get them to do what you want isn’t always an easy task.  But there are a few tricks you can try.  Don’t serve caffeinated drinks with dinner, so at least when your child is eating at home he won’t be getting too revved up.  Enforce some rules about keeping electronic devices out of her room, which is probably easier with a young teen if you’ve never started to allow it than to take it away from an older teen.  But if there is a television, computer, and cell phone in the room, chances are they will provide hours of late-night entertainment.  Finally, employ light cues to remind their bodies that night is for sleeping.  Keeping lighting dim in the evening can help them feel tired, and exposing them to bright light in the morning will help them awaken, naturally resetting their circadian rhythms.


1 McKnight-Elly, Lela R.; Eaton, Danice K.; Lowry, Richard; et al. “Relationships between hours of sleep and health-risk behaviors in US adolescent students.” Preventive Medicine. 5 August 2011.  Elsevier B.V. 17 November 2011. <>.