Research Links Sleep Deprivation to Risky Behaviors in Teens


It’s a battle that goes on in most households nearly every morning—the alarm goes off, and teens struggle to get out of bed while harried parents try to hurry them along. We are just glad to get them out of the door and on their way to school, never giving more than a passing thought to their sleep deprivation. But maybe we should. New research now shows that sleep-deprived teens are more prone to risky behaviors than their peers who get a full night’s rest.

When considering factors that contribute to teen drug use, drinking, and other risky behavior, few parents, if any, suspect that sleep deprivation has anything to do with it. Sure, we might notice that our teens sleep longer or go to bed later than we’d like but that’s as far as we get.

Yet, a growing body of research now reveals that teens who lack adequate sleep are more likely to:

Binge drink Get drunk Abuse drugs Consider or attempt suicide Drive under the influence and get involved in accidents Become involved in risky sexual situations they later regret Sleep Deprivation Is Strongly Linked to Risky Behaviors in Teens

Several studies have looked into the relationship between sleep and drinking, substance abuse and other forms of risky behavior among teens. One such study was based on an analysis of survey data gathered by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The data used in the study was from 2007-2015 CDC Youth Risk Behavior Surveys involving almost 68,000 high school students.

This study found that students who averaged less than 6 hours of sleep a night were twice as likely to report smoking cigarettes, drinking alcohol, using marijuana or driving under the influence. This same group was also 3 times more likely than others to experience suicide ideation and were also more likely to carry weapons or get involved in a fight. The study includes a caveat though—the survey only suggests an association between poor sleep and these behaviors but does not prove that one causes the other.

Another revealing study on the matter was carried out by scientists at the Idaho State University. This extensive study gathered information from over 6,500 teens in a series of waves — from 1994 to 1995, 1996 and from 2001 to 2002. Researchers then analyzed and compared sleep data from the earlier waves in relation to substance abuse data to that of later waves. They found that those with sleep issues like insomnia or difficulties staying asleep or those who received insufficient sleep were more likely to be current users of marijuana, alcohol and illicit drugs.

Both studies found that sleep deprivation was common among teens with less than a third of students in the first study and 45% of those in the second one not getting enough sleep.

The Bi-Directional Relationship between Sleep and Risky Behaviors in Teens

The question then becomes how does sleep influence risky behavior in teenagers?

The relationship between the two appears to be bi-directional meaning that they both have an effect on each other. When teens don’t get enough sleep, or when their natural sleep cycle is significantly disrupted, certain brain functions are impeded — notably those that regulate the experience or reward centers.

As a result, sleep-deprived teens cannot properly control their impulses, putting them at a greater risk for regular drug and alcohol use. Furthermore, poor sleep is a risk factor for poor mental health including teen depression and anxiety. These conditions can drive teens to drink and experiment with drugs in an effort to escape their mental health issues.

On the other hand, substance abuse can totally disrupt a healthy sleep cycle. Alcohol, tobacco and other illicit drugs are notorious for causing insomnia and negatively impacting an individual’s ability to sleep soundly throughout the night.

Whichever way you choose to look at it, there is evidence showing that an unbalanced sleep cycle increases the risk of substance abuse and vice versa.

Making Sleep a Priority in Your Family

Unfortunately for parents and teens, the latter are biologically predisposed to go to sleep later at night, so an early bedtime wouldn’t work. Teens’ production of melatonin, the hormone that regulates sleep, can peak at around 11 pm, explaining why teens stay up late. Additionally, teens’ sleep deficit can be accounted for by packed after-school schedules, staying up late to study and digital distractions from phones, TVs and social media.

The National Sleep Foundation recommends that teens aged 13-15 years get 8-10 hours of sleep every night. As a parent you can help your teen achieve this by:

Talking about the importance of sleep Insisting on a regular sleep schedule in your home with consistent sleep and waking times Instituting a digital curfew in your home by limiting the use of electronic devices past a certain hour and also banning them from the bedrooms Encouraging your teens to exercise and become more physically active Limiting your teen’s intake of caffeine throughout the day

Poor sleep in teenagers can lead to poor choices, dangerous situations, and dire consequences. If your teen isn’t getting adequate sleep, they may be at risk for drug and alcohol abuse, poor mental health and other issues. Ensuring that they get enough shut-eye every night will go a long way towards improving their health and keeping substance abuse at bay.


Alexandra L. C., Teresa S., Serigne L, et al. (2013, July). Sleep-Deprived Young Drivers and the Risk for Crash. JAMA Pediatrics. 167(7):647-655. doi:10.1001/jamapediatrics.2013.1429

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