Poor sleep in adolescence predicts future problems, study says

Adolescent sleep
National polls indicate that 27% of school-aged children and 45% of adolescents do not get enough sleep.
(Anne Cusack / Los Angeles Times)

A poor night’s sleep can carry far greater consequences for teens than just nodding off in class the next morning.

Routine failure to get adequate sleep -- either because of issues like insomnia or just staying up late surfing the Internet -- can predict future alcohol-related problems, such as binge drinking, risky sexual behavior and fighting, according to new research.

In a paper published Friday in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research, Idaho State University psychologists said that a growing body of evidence suggests adolescents need to be educated on the importance of proper sleep.

National polls indicate that 27% of school-aged children and 45% of adolescents do not sleep enough. At the same time, a growing body of evidence has uncovered connections between sleep deprivation and impaired cognitive function.


While most of these studies have focused on insomnia, which is defined as having trouble falling asleep or staying asleep every day, or almost every day, for a year, this recent study considered the loss of sleep for other reasons.

“Adolescents may have insufficient sleep due to a variety of reasons including academic and social obligations, poor sleep hygiene, and 24/7 Internet access through phones and computers,” wrote lead study author Maria Wong, a professor of developmental psychology, and her colleagues.

The researchers based their conclusions on data contained in the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, a survey of 6,504 students in grades 7 through 12.

During the first two years of the survey, adolescents who had sleep difficulties once a week, every day or almost every day in the last 12 months were about 47% more likely to have alcohol-related interpersonal problems, 47% more likely to engage in binge drinking and 80% more likely to engage in regretted sexual activities, the authors wrote.


“In other words, fewer hours of sleep were associated with greater odds of alcohol-related interpersonal problems,” the authors wrote.

When study participants were surveyed a year later, researchers found that increased sleep helped reduce problems.

“As hours of sleep increased by 1 unit, participants were 8% less likely to report interpersonal problems,” authors wrote. “With respect to binge-drinking, a 1-hour increase in sleep was associated with a 9% decrease in the odds of binge drinking.”

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, teens need nine to 10 hours of sleep a day, while adults need 7 to 8. 

The researchers said it remains unclear what factors influence the relationship between sleep and a variety of behaviors and abilities.

“There is a growing body of literature showing that sleep problems may adversely impact control of affect, cognitive processes and behavior,” the authors wrote.

“The adverse impact of sleep deprivation on executive functions in general, and inhibitory processes in particular, may increase the likelihood of engaging in risky behaviors, such as the ones examined in the study.”

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