Risks to Sleep-Deprived Teens are Greater Than We Ever Imagined

We parents fight the good fight trying to get our teens to sleep more, to get close to the nine hours experts tell us they need every night. But teens are laden with homework, overscheduled with extra-curricular activities and the alluring glow of their electronic devices keep them interacting with friends long past their optimal bedtimes.

 Previous studies showed that lack of sleep in teens caused, “learning difficulties, impaired judgment and risk of adverse health behaviors.” We know that sleep helps improve mental and physical health and crucially, reduces stress.

Now a new study released by researchers from the Brigham and Women’s Hospital of Boston raises new concerns for parents of sleep-deprived teens. The study found a notable connection between, “sleep duration and personal safety risk-taking actions.”

teen in bed with laptop
Teens need 8 hours of sleep every night.

Risks to teens of not getting enough sleep are great

When the researchers compared students, who had a sufficient night’s sleep with teens who had not, and then asked them to self-report certain behaviors they found that those who had slept less than six hours a night were twice, and it bears repeating, twice as likely to use alcohol, tobacco, marijuana or other drugs or exhibit aggressive behaviors.

They were also twice as likely to exhibit risk taking while driving which included driving after drinking. And, they were also twice as likely to self-report carrying a weapon or participating in a fight.

Using data from 67,615 high school students over the years 2007 and 2015, the study’s authors also found that sleep deprivation was most strongly linked to mood and self-harm.

“Those who slept less than six hours were more than three times as likely to consider or attempt suicide, and four times as likely to attempt suicide, resulting in treatment,” the report explained.

“We found the odds of unsafe behavior by high school students increased significantly with fewer hours of sleep,” said lead author Mathew Weaver, PhD, research fellow, Division of Sleep and Circadian Disorders, Brigham and Women’s Hospital. “Personal risk-taking behaviors are common precursors to accidents and suicides, which are the leading causes of death among teens and have important implications for the health and safety of high school students nationally.”

In addition, the study concluded that, “Insufficient sleep in youth raises multiple public health concerns, including mental health, substance abuse, and motor vehicle crashes,” said senior author Elizabeth Klerman, MD, PhD, director of the Analytic Modeling Unit, Division of Sleep and Circadian Disorders, Brigham and Women’s Hospital.

Doctors tell us that for optimal health teens should sleep between 8-10 hours a night. Yet, fewer than 30% of teens actually get that much shut eye most nights.

So, while parents have long worried, and rightly so, about teens driving fatigued or underperforming academically because of being sleep-deprived, this study must give parents pause. This new study reveals very serious potential risks that our teens face because of their busy lives. And those risks are not limited to academics or dangerous driving but include mood and self-harm issues.

The study concludes that “More research is needed to determine the specific relationships between sleep and personal safety risk-taking behaviors.”

In California, research like this is impacting policy. In October 2019, a law was passed pushing the start time for most high schools to after 8:30 am in the acknowledgement that teens need more sleep. Nationally, 90% of high schools start before this time.

Teens need a minimum of 8 hours of sleep each night

In the meantime, parents, schools, coaches and mentors should impress upon teens the need for a minimum of eight hours of sleep a night. And we can encourage them to do so, according to UCLA Health, by:

  • Creating a calm atmosphere at home in the evening
  • Suggesting a regular relaxing routine at bedtime
  • Helping them avoid things that avoid the senses late at night
  • Suggesting they avoid smoking, drinking and caffeine at night
  • Designing a good daily exercise routine with them
  • Urging them not to sleep into the afternoon on weekends as it disrupts their body clock for the weekdays


We adults should not only teach and model healthy sleep habits, we should make it possible for teens to actually have the time and therefore the capacity to get a healthy night’s sleep. Their lives may depend on it.

Note: The study covered students, all of whom self-reported (anonymously), in all four years of high school with the highest representation from 9th graders.

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About Lisa Endlich Heffernan

Lisa (Endlich) Heffernan is the co-founder of Grown and Flown, the #1 site for parents of teens, college students and young adults, reaching millions of parents every month. Lisa is a New York Times bestselling author.
She started the Grown and Flown Parents Facebook Group and is co-author of Grown and Flown: How to Support Your Teen, Stay Close as a Family, and Raise Independent Adults (Flatiron Books) now in paperback.

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