The Grapevine

Teens Sleeping Less More Likely To Show Suicidal Behavior, Act Unsafely

High school students who get less than six hours of sleep per night on average may be more likely to engage in unsafe behaviors involving substance use and self-harm. Thanks to the nationally representative sample, the findings also shed light on how a majority of American teens are not meeting the guidelines for adolescent sleep duration.

The study titled "Dose-Dependent Associations Between Sleep Duration and Unsafe Behaviors Among US High School Students" was published in JAMA Pediatrics on Oct. 1.

The research team looked at data from over 65,000 surveys regarding the behavior of high school students in the United States. Participants were categorized based on the amount of sleep they got each night — eight hours or more, seven hours, six hours or under six hours.

According to guidelines, adolescents should aim for 8-10 hours of sleep. But the findings shed light on how 70 percent of students were not even able to reach eight hours of sleep per night. 

Furthermore, an association was found between unsafe behavior and insufficient sleep. Compared to students who met the guidelines, the ones who slept for under six hours were two times as likely to report using alcohol, tobacco, marijuana, driving under the influence, and engaging in risky sexual activities.

"One possible physiologic mechanism is that insufficient and poor quality sleep is associated with reduced activation of the prefrontal cortex, an area that is critical for executive function and logical reasoning," explained lead author Matthew Weaver of Harvard Medical School in Boston.

"Regions of the brain that are related to reward processing are also affected, potentially leading to more impulsive and emotionally-driven decisions," he added. 

Substance use was not the only risk as strong associations were also found when examining mood and self-harm activities. Compared to those who slept for at least eight hours, teens who slept for under six hours were more than three times as likely to consider or attempt suicide.

The authors did note the study had its limitations. For one, self-reported data is always prone to inaccuracies, especially when involving teenagers and sleep habits. As it was observational, the study could not prove cause-and-effect either, which means that other factors besides sleep may have played a role.

While more research is required to eliminate these roadblocks, the takeaway is for parents to help the vulnerable age group get sufficient sleep and follow a consistent schedule. Limiting screen time during the night, avoiding excess sugar/caffeine intake, and getting more exercise during the day are a few recommended ways to get better sleep

If you have thoughts of suicide, confidential help is available for free at the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. Call 1-800-273-8255. The line is available 24 hours, every day.