Sleep deprivation could lead to risky teen behavior

April 15, 2016 Providence Health Team

Is your teen constantly dragging? If so, he or she is not alone. Most teenagers in the U.S. suffer from sleep deprivation, according to a new study by the Centers for Disease Control. And it’s not just their studies that suffer when they are tired. When teenagers get less than seven hours of sleep a night during the school week, they are much more prone to risky behavior than those who get nine hours of sleep each night, the study found.

Teens with less sleep are more likely to:

  • Text while driving
  • Drink and drive
  • Ride with a driver who is drinking
  • Not wear a seatbelt

50,000 teens in study

The CDC based its findings on questionnaires filled out by more than 50,000 high school students in 2009, 2011 and 2013. The findings are similar to a 2011 CDC report that found that students who slept less than eight hours a night were more likely to:

  • Smoke cigarettes or marijuana
  • Not exercise
  • Be sexually active
  • Drink alcohol
  • Feel sad or hopeless
  • Think about suicide

At that time, the CDC reported that nearly 70 percent of teenagers did not get enough sleep.

An “easily fixable” problem

In 2014, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) issued its own policy statement about sleep deprivation. “Chronic sleep loss in children and adolescents is one of the most common – and easily fixable – public health issues in the U.S. today,” lead author Judith Owens, M.D., FAAP, said at the time.

Medical experts believe that part of the problem is that the school day starts too early. The AAP recommended that the first school bell of the day ring no earlier than 8:30 a.m. The intent was simple: to allow teens to get the recommended 8 ½ to 9 ½ hours of sleep a night.

Are later school start times the answer?

Studies have shown that students who get more sleep do better in school. A study by the University of Minnesota in 2014 reviewed the performance of 9,000 students from eight public high schools in three states. Students at schools with start times of 8:30 a.m. or later did better in core subjects such as math, English, science and social studies. The study also found that school attendance and scores on state and national achievement tests improved.

But change comes slowly. Another CDC study in 2015 found that:

  • 42 states reported that 75 to 100 percent of their state's public schools started before 8:30 a.m.
  • The average start time was 8:03 a.m.
  • The percentage of schools with start times of 8:30 a.m. or later varied greatly by state. No schools in Hawaii, Mississippi and Wyoming started at 8:30 a.m. or later; more than 75 percent of the schools in Alaska and North Dakota started at 8:30 a.m. or later.
  • The earliest average start time was 7:40 a.m., in Louisiana, and the latest was 8:33 a.m., in Alaska

Tips for parents

Getting a teenager to sleep enough can be a challenge. But the CDC researchers say parents can encourage children to develop good sleep habits. Here are some ideas they recommend:

  • Set a regular time for going to bed and waking up.
  • Limit the use of stimulating entertainment such as video games and cell phones.
  • Encourage regular, daily exercise.
  • Serve nutritious meals.
  • Avoid large meals before bedtime.
  • Limit sugary snacks and sodas.
  • Practice what you preach and model good habits for your kids.

Also, investigate your school district's policy on start times. Find out from your child's principal if there has been any discussion about moving start times later.

It may be worthwhile to learn more about how sleep deprivation could be affecting your child's health. A good start is to talk with your child's pediatrician or primary care provider about solutions for a good night's sleep. Don’t have a pediatrician or a primary care provider? Use our online tools to find a clinic or provider near you.

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