Negative effects of adolescent sleep deprivation

iStock_000001028732XSmallResearchers at the University of Massachusetts/Boston and New York University studied the role of sleep in predicting academic and psychosocial outcomes in early adolescence. During middle school, social, academic and biological changes diminish the amount and quality of young adolescents’ sleep. They go to bed later, get up earlier and feel increasingly sleepy during the day. This can lead to chronic insufficient sleep, which can have serious negative implications, report Katia Fredriksen, Jean Rhodes, Ranjini Reddy and Niobe Way. As children enter adolescence, parents exert less influence on bedtimes, school start times get progressively earlier as students move into middle and high school, and tougher academic demands necessitate more time devoted to homework. Greater computer use also leads to increased nonacademic use of the Internet for games and socializing. These researchers also state that when adolescents try to catch up by sleeping late on weekends and holidays, an even more imbalanced sleep-wake schedule exists when they return to school and are required to get up early.

Previous research has shown that adolescent sleep deprivation is associated with negative academic and psychosocial outcomes. Studies have indicated that insufficient sleep compromises learning, memory, attention, and abstract thinking skills. In addition, there is increased risk of school absences due to physical illness, and students fall asleep in school, oversleep in the morning, and are fatigued and irritable. Sleep deprivation has also been shown to lead to depressed mood, suicidal ideation and unhappiness. Researchers suggest that “adolescent moodiness may be in part a repercussion of insufficient sleep.” This moodiness may influence coping skills and relationships with peers and adults.

Current Study

Fredriksen et al. studied a large sample of students (2,259) from sixth to eighth grade, examining the effects of change in sleep patterns on academic and psychosocial outcomes over time. Twenty-three schools in the Midwest participated in the study. School populations varied greatly, but in aggregate approximately 82 percent of the students were European Americans and 18 percent were from minority backgrounds. The majority lived with two parents.

Teachers administered self-report surveys to students. Students answered questions about the amount of sleep they got on a typical school night and the grades they earned in school. Demographic data about the students and their families was collected. Students also completed a shortened version of the Children’s Depressive Inventory and the Self-Esteem Questionnaire.

Results demonstrated overall declines in hours of sleep, self-esteem and self-reported grades, and a rise in depressive symptoms. Students obtaining less sleep were more likely to report depressive symptoms and low self-esteem. There was a small positive correlation between eighth-grade sleep and self-reported grades. Researchers studied the effects of demographic characteristics (sex, socioeconomic status, race and mother’s education) on sleep. Race did not significantly influence change in sleep patterns over time, and mother’s education was not significant either. There were significant individual differences in results. Overall, both self-esteem and grades decreased over time. There were increasing levels of depressive mood over the course of middle school. Researchers questioned whether lack of sleep was causing the increased negative outcomes or if depressive symptoms and poor self-esteem were responsible for change in sleep patterns. Analysis of results in this study indicates that psychosocial outcomes were influenced by sleep patterns, rather than vice versa.

Impact on self-esteem

Consistent with previous research, the amount of sleep did decrease during early adolescence for both girls and boys. Students who got less sleep had lower self-esteem and grades and higher levels of depressive symptoms. And students who got progressively less sleep over the years of middle school experienced increasingly more negative outcomes. The influence on grades in this study, however, was minimal.

There were significant gender differences. Although boys and girls went to bed at similar times, boys tended to wake up later on weekdays, which these researchers suggest may be due to girls’ more substantial morning grooming routines or a greater load of household chores or both. However, boys’ self-esteem dropped more sharply than girls’ over time, and girls reported higher grades throughout middle school.

This study is limited by its use of single-item, self-reported measures on grades and sleep. Previous research, however, has found a close approximation between self-reported grades and school transcripts. Future studies should provide a more thorough evaluation of the quality and quantity of adolescents’ sleep. These researchers report that even a half hour difference per night was shown to affect functioning. Despite these limitations, Fredriksen et al. assert that their findings have important implications for research and policy. Elevated levels of depression and drops in self-esteem are seen as characteristics of adolescence, yet these researchers believe such changes may be due, in part to decreased levels of sleep. Sleep patterns are largely under individual, parental and even school control. These researchers recommend that teachers devote time to this topic in health and physical education classes and that parents encourage earlier bedtimes. Lighter homework loads and later school start times could have positive effects on students’ emotional health and academic performance.

“Sleepless in Chicago: Tracking the Effects of Adolescent Sleep Loss During the Middle School Years”, Child Development, Volume 75, Number 1, February 2004, pp. 84-95.

Published in ERN May/June 2004 Volume 17 Number 5

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