Adolescents require 8-10 hours of sleep at night for optimal health according to sleep experts, yet more than 70 percent of high school students get less than that. In a new study, researchers at Brigham and Women’s Hospital examined a national data sample of risk-taking behaviors and sleep duration self-reported by high school students over eight years and found an association between sleep duration and personal safety risk-taking actions.
Previous studies have demonstrated that insufficient sleep in youth can result in learning difficulties, impaired judgement, and risk of adverse health behaviors. We found the odds of unsafe behavior by high school students increased significantly with fewer hours of sleep, said lead author Mathew Weaver, PhD, research fellow, Division of Sleep and Circadian Disorders, Brigham and Women’s Hospital.
Personal risk-taking behaviors are common precursors to accidents and suicides, which are the leading causes of death among teens and have important implications for the health and safety of high school students nationally. Those who slept less than six hours were more than three times as likely to consider or attempt suicide, and four times as likely to attempt suicide, resulting in treatment. Only 30 percent of the students in the study reported averaging more than eight hours of sleep on school nights.
The Youth Risk Behavior Surveys are administered biannually by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) at public and private schools across the country.
Insufficient sleep in youth raises multiple public health concerns, including mental health, substance abuse, and motor vehicle accidents. More research is needed to determine the specific relationships between sleep and personal safety risk-taking behaviors. We should support efforts to promote healthy sleep habits and decrease barriers to sufficient sleep in this vulnerable population.
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Risk and consequences
Sleep deprivation puts teenagers into a kind of perpetual cloud or haze, explains Dr. Mary Carskadon, a professor of psychiatry at Brown University and director of chronobiology and sleep research at Bradley Hospital in Rhode Island. “One of the metaphors I use is that it’s like having an astigmatism. You don’t realize how bad your vision is until you get glasses or in this case, good sleep.” That haze, she says, can negatively affect teenager’s mood, ability to think, to react, to regulate their emotions, to learn and to get along with adults.
According to a National Sleep Foundation Study, drowsiness or fatigue is the principal cause of at least 100,000 traffic accidents each year. One North Carolina state study found that 55% of all “fall-asleep” crashes were caused by drivers under the age of 25. Parents shouldn’t let sleep deprived adolescents get behind the wheel anymore than they would if their kid had been drinking.
Along with a lack of sleep goes the ability to exercise self-control — over one’s emotions, impulses and mood. Dr. Ryan C. Meldrum, an assistant professor in the Department of Criminal Justice at Florida International University, found a link between short sleep duration, late bedtimes, and poor overall sleep quality and aggression, impulsivity, and being short-tempered.
Research by Carskadon and several others shows that sleep-deprived teens are far more likely to use stimulants like caffeine and nicotine to get through the day but also to deal with sleep-related negative moods by self-medicating with alcohol. They’re also more likely to engage in unprotected sex and reckless driving than teens who get upwards of 7 hours of sleep a night because they lack impulse control and suffer from impaired judgment that leads to poor decision-making.