Can a Lack of Sleep Lead to Behavioral Problems in Teens?


Written by Alison Deshong

Reviewed by Dr. Michael Breus

Our Editorial Process

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Lack of sleep can cause a variety of behavioral problems in teens. Teenagers need 8 to 10 hours of sleep a night, yet most don’t get that much. Lack of sleep in teens is linked to behavioral issues, mental health conditions, and academic challenges.

Experts recognize that sleep deprivation in teens is a significant public health issue in the United States. Fortunately, there are steps that teens, as well as their parents and caregivers, can take to help. We explore the effects of sleep loss in teens, why teens are losing so much sleep, and strategies to help teens get the sleep they need to thrive.

Effects Of Sleep Deprivation On The Teenage Brain

Adolescence is a time of crucial brain development as children transition into adulthood. As teens gain more independence and assume new social roles, the brain undergoes intense growth and maturation. Without enough sleep, brain function suffers. 

The teenage brain is highly adaptable, flexible, and responsive to the environment. While brain development is important for learning during this time, it also helps to explain why teens are prone to taking risks and why they find it difficult to prioritize sleep.

Research shows that inadequate sleep in teens can lead to a broad array of behavior problems, including poor judgment, moodiness, aggression, and problems at school. 

Risky Behavior

Although risk-taking is a natural part of teenage development, sleep loss can lead to teens taking greater risks and make it more difficult for them to consider the potential negative outcomes of their choices. Certain risky behaviors may be more likely in teens who aren’t getting enough sleep.

  • Substance Use: Research has shown that teens who get insufficient sleep are more likely to use tobacco and marijuana, vape, and drink alcohol.
  • Unsafe Driving: Sleep loss in teens increases the risk of drunk driving, not wearing a seatbelt, getting in a car with a drunk driver, and texting while driving. The risk of injury from automobile accidents is also higher in sleep-deprived teens. 
  • Skipping School: Get too little sleep during the week and oversleeping on the weekends sharply increases the likelihood that teens will skip school. Truancy may put teens at heightened risk for unintended pregnancy, unsafe sex, and substance use.
  • Risky Sexual Behavior: Risky sexual behaviors, such as having unprotected sex, are more likely in teens who consistently get too little sleep. 
  • Other Behavior Problems: Research has also shown that sleep-deprived high school students are more likely to carry a weapon, get into fights, and contemplate or engage in suicidal behavior. Sleep-deprived teens are also more likely to experience injuries at work or while playing sports. 

Mood and Emotional Impacts

Sleep loss can negatively affect a teen’s mood and emotions. Studies have connected sleep loss among adolescents to a wide range of emotional consequences.

  • Depression: Sleep loss in teens is linked to feelings of sadness, hopelessness, and depression. Conversely, depression also increases the likelihood that teens will lose sleep.
  • Emotional Control: Research has shown that sleep deprivation also makes it harder for teens to control their emotions. Sleep loss makes teens more prone to emotional outbursts and overreacting to small setbacks.
  • Anxiety: Teens who get too little sleep are also more prone to anxiety. Research has linked adolescent sleep loss to feelings of tension, nervousness, and restlessness. 
  • Motivation: When teens don’t get enough sleep, they are more likely to lack energy and feel unmotivated. It can also be harder for teens to make decisions and exercise good judgment.

In addition to the effects on a teen’s mood and emotions, sleep disruption is linked to worsened symptoms in teens with existing mental health conditions.

Worsened Social Relationships

Lack of sleep can impair teens’ social skills at the very time they are assuming new roles and responsibilities. Studies have found that sleep-deprived teens are more reactive and have a hard time recognizing and responding to other people’s emotions.

In addition, sleep deprivation makes it more likely that a teen won’t pick up on subtle social cues, making it more difficult to navigate social situations. Sleep deprivation is also linked to more difficulty managing emotions, which can lead to increased conflict in relationships.

Poor Academic Performance

Sleep loss in teens is linked to reduced academic performance from middle school all the way through college. Without enough sleep, it’s difficult for the teen brain to process and integrate new information. Sleep loss can make it more difficult to concentrate, remember, and focus their attention. 

Sleep issues can also lead to problems in the classroom. Sleep issues can make students less cooperative, prone to misbehavior, and more likely to skip school. Students may also be drowsy rather than alert and fall asleep in class.

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Causes of Sleep Deprivation in Teens

There are a number of reasons why teens often don’t get enough sleep. Some reasons are a natural part of adolescent development, while others are a consequence of new challenges teens may face as they transition into adulthood.

  • Biological Changes: Teens experience a natural shift in their sleep-wake cycle during adolescence, typically beginning around puberty. This makes them more inclined to stay up about two hours later than in childhood.
  • Schedule Pressures: School start times are often out of sync with teens’ changing biology, forcing them to awaken before they’ve gotten the sleep they need. Additionally, many teens have demanding schedules due to academics, sports, jobs, and other obligations, leaving too little time for adequate sleep. 
  • Effects of Technology: Many teens regularly use social media and a variety of electronic devices, like smartphones and computers. Research has shown that more screen time is linked to less sleep time in adolescents. Electronic devices emit blue light that suppresses melatonin, the hormone that makes people feel sleepy. 
  • Other Causes: Other factors that can result in lack of sleep in teens include mental health issues like anxiety and depression, sleep disorders like obstructive sleep apnea, caffeine consumption, and medications for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). 

Identifying Signs of Sleep Deprivation

Signs of sleep deprivation vary from teen to teen. Signs that a teen may not be getting enough sleep include:

  • Daytime sleepiness 
  • Weight gain 
  • Inactivity 
  • Difficulty focusing 
  • Mood changes 
  • Misbehavior 
  • Hyperactivity 

How to Help Teenagers Get Better Sleep

While sleep loss in teens is considered a widespread public health challenge, there are a number of steps that caregivers and teens can take to make quality sleep a priority. 

  • Make a Schedule: Teens may feel they’re too old for a bedtime, but routinely going to bed and getting up at the same time each day can help teens get enough sleep.
  • Don’t Oversleep on Weekends: While it’s tempting for teens to catch up on sleep on weekends, it may make things worse. Oversleeping on weekends can disrupt teens’ circadian rhythms and make behavior problems worse. 
  • Wind Down Before Bed: Encourage relaxing activities like reading, listening to music, or taking a warm shower or bath in the hour before bed and avoid blue light emitted by electronic devices. 
  • Ditch the Phone: Texting and alerts late at night or early in the morning can interfere with sleep. Research shows that restricting nighttime phone use helps teens get to sleep faster, sleep better, and stay asleep longer. 
  • Encourage Healthy Food Choices: Healthy diets with ample fruits, vegetables, and whole grains are linked to better sleep. Be sure to discourage foods and drinks containing caffeine later in the day.
  • Advocate for Later School Start Times: The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that middle and high schools start at 8:30 a.m. or later, to align with teens’ sleep-wake cycles. Some school districts have pushed back start times, with positive results.

In addition to taking steps to prioritize sleep, teens with signs of sleep deprivation should talk to a doctor. Sometimes a sleep disorder, such as obstructive sleep apnea, can make it harder for teens to get enough sleep. A teen’s doctor can also help determine if any medical issues may be contributing to a teen’s sleep difficulties. 

About The Author

Alison Deshong

Staff Writer, Product Testing Team

Alison is a health writer with ample experience reading and interpreting academic, peer-reviewed research. Based in San Diego, she is published in the journal PLOS Genetics and the Journal of Biological Chemistry and has been a copywriter for SmartBug media. With a master’s degree in biochemistry from the University of California, Davis, she has nearly a decade of academic research experience in life sciences. She enjoys helping people cut through the noise to understand the bigger picture about sleep and health. Alison likes to stay active with rock climbing, hiking, and walking her dog.

  • POSITION: Stomach sleeper
  • TEMPERATURE: Neutral Sleeper

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