Teens Who Can’t Sleep Have Friends That Can’t Sleep

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Social ties may be the true culprit behind adolescents’ disrupted sleep habits.

Researchers from the University of Cincinnati studied a group of 1,000 teens aged 12 to 15 from the Study of Early Child Care and Youth Development, which logged their physical, cognitive and social development. Between the ages 12 and 15, the average sleep time dropped from over nine hours a night to less than eight. Girls were more likely to have trouble sleeping, as well as minority participants.

When they investigated what was contributing to the decline, the team found that the teens’ social ties — their relationships with parents and friends — exerted a significant influence on how much they slept. For instance, teens who got adequate sleep each school night were more likely to have parents who monitored their daily behavior — not that surprising. But teens were also more likely to get good rest if they were playing an active part in their schools, if they had friends who were positive and social people, and if they cared about school performance.

What’s the connection? Having strong social networks of people who are positive and have good social habits themselves may encourage traits like getting to bed on time, say the researchers.

These new findings, which are published in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior, highlight the importance of behavioral factors in teen sleep; in recent years, studies have documented some of the biological reasons why adolescents may be compelled to stay up late and wake up late. Some of that data suggested that adolescents produce less of the sleep-inducing hormone melatonin, which makes teens less drowsy as the sun sets. But having a more complete picture of what drives sleep behavior — that includes these biological as well as behavioral factors — can help physicians to better treat teens who may have problems catching enough Zs.

“When adolescents have trouble sleeping, doctors often recommend prescription drugs to address the problem,” said lead study author David J. Maume, a sociology professor at the University of Cincinnati in a statement. “My research indicates that it’s necessary to look beyond biology when seeking to understand and treat adolescents’ sleep problems. 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.”