Why Poor Sleep in Teens Should Raise a Red Flag

Mom always said that getting a good night’s sleep was important. New research proves she was right. A national study showed that difficulties sleeping predicted difficulties with alcohol and risky sexual behavior for teens. Another study showed that teens who had trouble sleeping were more likely to abuse drugs that doctors prescribed to help them sleep.

“We found that sleep difficulties predicted alcohol and drug use at later times,” said Maria Wong, Ph.D., professor of Developmental Psychology at Idaho State University. Wong is an author on the new study linking poor sleep and substance-related problems.

“It is important that parents know that sleep problems can predict certain problems with substance abuse,” Wong said. “I’m a parent and sleep is probably the last thing my teenage son cares about. This study tells me that sleep is one of the things we should both care about most.”

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Researchers used data collected from 6,504 adolescents from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health (Add Health). The researchers looked at what teens said about their sleep habits and their use of alcohol, illicit drugs, driving, sexual activities, and other problem areas, from 1994 to 1995, 1996, and 2001 to 2002.

Do Sleep Problems Lead to Substance Abuse?

Nearly half of teens, or 45 percent, don’t sleep long enough most nights, Wong said. Ten percent of teens say they have trouble falling asleep, or staying asleep most days or almost every day.

We already know that sleep problems predict substance abuse problems in adults, said Wong. This may be the first study to show that sleep problems predict substance abuse in teenagers.

The Add Health results found that poor sleep predicts binge drinking and driving under the influence. Sleep problems also predict risky sexual behavior. The problems are similar for boys and girls.

boy with beer

During the adolescent years kids learn to control their impulses and behavior. “When you’re tired and spacey, it’s harder to think about what you’re doing and easier to give in to the first impulse,” said Wong.

Lack of sleep is a risk factor in decision making too. Insufficient sleep, especially if it goes on for a while, can have consequences in substance abuse. We still have a long way to go in understanding it, but this is a good first step.

Related News: ACA Brings Mental Health and Substance Abuse Treatment to Millions »

Prescribing Sleep Drugs to Teens Is Risky

A 2014 study from the University of Michigan identified another problem. Teens who have sleeping problems may be prescribed anti-anxiety drugs or sleep medications. Kids who are prescribed drugs to help them sleep are 12 times more likely to abuse drugs within two years.

Insufficient sleep, especially if it goes on for a while, can have consequences in substance abuse.
Maria Wong, professor, Idaho State University

Anti-anxiety medications used to improve sleep include clonazepam (Klonopin), alprazolam (Xanax), and lorazepam (Ativan). Sleep medications include zolpidem (Ambien), temazepam (Restoril), and eszopiclone (Lunesta).

The study, which looked at 2,745 teens in Detroit, was the first to show that teens who use prescription drugs to help them sleep are more likely to abuse prescription drugs later, said study author Carol Boyd Ph.D., R.N., a Deborah J. Oakley professor of Nursing at the University of Michigan School of Nursing.

“Helping make sure your teens get enough sleep is absolutely vital,” Kent Runyon, executive director of Novus Medical Detox Center in New Port Richey, Florida, told Healthline. “We don’t have a culture that values sleep, so it’s up to parents. It goes back to building good life skills in our children and teenagers. It’s up to us to help them realize that sleep habits matter.”

Learn About Healthy Sleep »

The National Sleep Foundation offers the following tips for getting enough sleep and good quality sleep:

  • Keep your bedtime and wake up time consistent, even on weekends.
  • Use a relaxing bedtime ritual.
  • Exercise every day.
  • Design your room for good sleep.
  • Avoid bright lights in the evening.
  • Spend the last hour before bed doing something calming.

Runyon said that one of the most important things is to avoid using electronic screens right before bed. “The bright light from a phone screen, a tablet, or a computer tells your brain it’s time to wake up. The other thing is to stay away from stimulants after dinner. It’s really not a great idea to chug that monster-sized energy drink an hour before you head for bed,” said Runyon.