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How Teen Sleep Deprivation Leads to Risk-Taking Behaviors

Establishing healthy sleep habits may help your teen make better choices.

Wen hui Wang/Deposit Photos
Source: Wen hui Wang/Deposit Photos

We can all relate to one sleepless night, but what if we were barely getting enough sleep to get by? Unfortunately, that’s what’s happening to many of our teens — and it’s affecting their ability to function.

According to the National Sleep Foundation, teens need between 8-10 hours of sleep each night, but only about 15 percent are even getting close to that amount. In fact, today’s teens are lucky if they get around seven hours of zzz’s a night — and most are only getting six hours or less during the school week. According to a study published in the Journal of Adolescent Health, about 59 percent of youth are severely sleep deprived and their lack of sleep can lead to a severe condition known as insomnia.

Teenage Sleep Deprivation

Insomnia is a sleep disorder characterized by having trouble falling asleep, staying asleep, waking up too early, or any combination of these disturbances. Studies have shown that between 6 percent to 10 percent of adults meet the criteria for an insomnia disorder, in which sleep disturbances occur at a minimum of 3 times per week and are present for 3 months. Many of these sleep problems begin during adolescence. During these years, teen brains are wired to fall asleep later and wake later, but many schools start early and that creates a nightmare for establishing healthy sleep habits.

Aside from being night owls, teen sleep deprivation has also been linked with anxiety, stress, and depression. Regarding depression, one study showed that 90 percent of people who suffer from depression also struggle with insomnia. Sleep deprived teens try to self-medicate by turning to stimulants such as caffeine and nicotine to make it through the day, but those only provide temporary relief. And some youth look for something more potent to help them get through the night, like alcohol.

A recent study of seventh and eighth-grade students found that sleep problems in youth were indeed a risk factor for alcohol use. The study published in the journal of Addictive Behaviors looked at the associations between alcohol use and sleep-related issues. Results indicated alcohol use was significantly correlated with both insomnia and daytime sleepiness. Another study showed that teens with sleep problems were 55 percent more likely to have used alcohol in the past month in comparison to teens who didn’t report any sleep problems. To supplement these findings, there have been numerous studies linking sleep deprivation with drinking, binge-drinking, drinking and driving, and risky sexual behavior. Simplistically, the research shows teens need sleep to function and perform well, without it they are at higher risk for mental health problems including substance use.

Andrey Shadrin/Deposit Photos
Source: Andrey Shadrin/Deposit Photos

Warning Signs and How Parents Can Take Action

So, how does a parent know whether their teen is getting enough rest? Fortunately, there are some clear warning signs that indicate sleep deprivation. These include:

  • Mood swings
  • Bags or dark circles under the eyes
  • Easily irritated
  • Lethargic and fatigued
  • Irregular sleep patterns, like napping in the evening and staying up at night
  • Poor dietary habits (overeating or undereating)
  • Inability to focus and concentrate
  • Chronically being late to events
  • High levels of absenteeism at school and work
  • Withdrawn and isolated
  • Complaints of being tired
  • Difficulty waking in the morning

For a teen, nothing can recharge a battery like a good night’s sleep. If you are the parent of a teen who is struggling to get enough sleep, it’s important to intervene and help set up a healthy bedtime routine. Following a similar nightly routine is important in developing good sleep habits. Below are some things that can inhibit a good night’s rest, followed by some things that can support healthy sleep habits.

Sleep Inhibitors:

  • Avoid any sugary or caffeinated beverages about 3 hours prior to bedtime. Sugar acts as a stimulant and caffeine is a stimulant, both create a sense of alertness and can make it difficult to settle down for a good night’s rest.
  • Avoid exercising a few hours before bedtime, as this raises the body temperature and it’s hard to go to sleep if you’re too hot.
  • Avoid eating a meal or large snack prior to bedtime. Digestion takes time, so it’s not good to have the body breaking down a big meal right before turning in.
  • Avoid having devices close by. According to the National Sleep Foundation poll, 72 percent of all children and 89 percent of teens have at least one electronic device in the sleep environment. These devices are a distraction and can be the culprit of a lot of sleepless nights.
  • Avoid long naps by keeping them under 30 minutes. There’s nothing wrong with a little power nap, but when teens are turning in for bed when they get home from school then there is a problem. If your teen must snooze in the afternoon, then set an alarm for 30 minutes, anything more can be counterproductive.

Sleep Aids:

  • Set regular bedtime hours. Yes, this may be hard to do with teens, but they still need to maintain some sort of structure in their lives. Give them a time range that ensures at least a good 8 hours of sleep each night.
  • Create a peaceful and device-free environment (screens off about an hour prior to turning in). Have teens create a comfortable space that sets the scene for relaxation, such as dim lights, soft music, and light reading, not on a device, but a book or magazine.
  • Encourage teens to relax by taking a warm bath or shower, not too hot though as that raises the body temperature and it can take a while to cool back down.
  • Keep the routine going throughout the week and weekend. If teens want to stay up late on the weekend that’s OK if it’s within a couple of hours past bedtime. Pulling an all-nighter, however, can set up a rough start to the school week.
  • Encourage exercise and healthy eating habits. Both physical activity and eating healthy foods has been linked to a more zzz’s.
Natee Srisuk/Deposit Photos
Source: Natee Srisuk/Deposit Photos

Seeking the Help of a Professional

Sleep deprivation is a serious matter that can adversely affect a teen’s life. Fortunately, establishing good sleep habits can reduce symptoms of insomnia which, in turn, can reduce other risk factors. If you suspect your teen has a chronic sleep problem, please seek professional attention.

Helping teens establish healthy sleep habits early can help them make healthier choices. Plus, a well-rested teen is a happier one!

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