When confronting a yawning teenager complaining of insomnia, doctors often reach for their prescription pads in an attempt to treat what amounts to a very natural development — the sleep-inducing hormone melatonin begins to decline during puberty. Yet a new study conducted by a researcher at the University of Cincinnati suggests that social ties, including relationships with parents, siblings, and peers, may contribute more to changing sleep patterns among adolescents than ebbing hormones.

“My research indicates that it's necessary to look beyond biology when seeking to understand and treat adolescents' sleep problems,” David J. Maume, sociology professor, University of Cincinnati, states in a press release. “Such an approach may lead to more counseling or greater parental involvement in teens' lives, both of which are less invasive than commonly-prescribed medical solutions and, at least in the case of parental involvement, cheaper." His research appears in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior.

Minorities and Girls

Using data from the Study of Early Child Care and Youth Development, a longitudinal study of children's physical, cognitive, and social development, Maume analyzed the changes in school night sleep patterns of nearly 1,000 adolescents from when they were 12 to 15 years old. During this period of development, average sleep duration dropped from more than nine hours per school night to less than eight. Maume also discovered changes in the ways parent’s monitored adolescents’ behavior in this period — especially in setting a bedtime — and how that strongly impacted sleep habits.

"Research shows that parents who keep tabs on their kids are less likely to see them get into trouble or use drugs and alcohol," Maume states. "My findings suggest a similar dynamic with sleep. Parents who monitor their children's behavior are more likely to have kids that get adequate rest. Given that children generally get less sleep as they become teenagers, parents should be ever more vigilant at this stage." Adolescents also had healthier sleep — longer duration and higher quality — when they felt they were a part of the schools they attended or had friends who cared about academics and were positive, social people.

As one might expect, more time in front of a computer screen generally meant less sleep and more sleep issues, yet more time in front of the TV added up to sleeping marginally longer (though with slightly more problems). Additionally, Maume observed that minority adolescents reported less sleep on school nights than their white counterparts, while girls reported more sleep issues than boys. "Past research on minority families suggests that children who have trouble sleeping are allowed to get up, whereas white youths are encouraged to stay in bed. If this is the case, then minority children may get less sleep at night,” Maume noted. He speculates the reason girls reported more sleep problems than boys is not that they experience more nighttime troubles but that they are socialized to be more introspective and so recognize illness more readily. Norwegian researchers, who recently conducted a sleep study exploring some of the same issues, would in all likelihood part company with Maume on this point.

Sleep and Depression

“Both sleep problems and depression are common problems in adolescence,” the authors state at the outset of their published study, which examined possible links between depression and sleep during adolescence. Dipping into a large population-based study conducted in Hordaland County in Norway during 2012 — the ung@hordaland study — researchers from the Norwegian Institute of Public Health surveyed 10,220 adolescents between the ages of 16 and 18 (54 percent girls) about their sleep behaviors and depression. Immediately, the research team discovered a large overlap between insomnia and depression in both genders and across depressive symptoms.

“Depressed adolescents exhibited significantly shorter sleep duration and time in bed as well as significantly longer sleep onset latency and wake after sleep onset,” the authors write. In fact, adolescents with insomnia experienced four- to five-fold increased odds of depression compared to good sleepers. The researchers also found an eight-fold increase in odds of depression for those who met criteria for insomnia and who slept less than six hours. Unlike the American study, the researchers found this connection to be stronger in boys.

Sources: Maume DJ. Social Ties and Adolescent Sleep Disruption. Journal of Health and Social Behavior. 2013.

Sivertsen B, Harvey AG, Lundervold AJ, Hysing M. Sleep problems and depression in adolescence: results from a large population-based study of Norwegian adolescents aged 16-18 years. European Child & Adolescent Psychiatry. 2013.