At least 50 percent of middle school students and 75 percent of high school students in the United States are not getting enough hours of sleep on a daily basis, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).1
Commenting on children not getting enough sleep, Oleg Tarkovsky, director of Behavioral Health Services at CareFirst Blue Cross & Blue Shield, said:
It affects everything we do, including the functioning of kids, the ability to learn, their mental health, emotional social health and physical health. It affects everything.2
Tarkovsky added that for children under the age of six, inadequate sleep has a negative effect on growth and development and, for adolescents, inadequate sleep interferes with learning by affecting memory and reducing attention spans.3
Rafael Pelayo, MD, a sleep researcher at the Stanford Sleep Medicine Center in California, said that lack of sleep in adolescents affects their executive functioning, making them more susceptible to taking drugs, committing crimes, or taking risks sexually.4
Strong Link Between Lack of Sleep and Impulsive Behaviors in Children
A 2023 study from the Youth Development Institute at University of Georgia published in Sleep Health found that children, who had less than nine hours of sleep per day or took over 30 minutes to fall asleep, exhibited more impulsive behaviors.5
The lead researcher of the study, Linhao Zhang, stated:
Stressful environments are shown to make adolescents seek immediate rewards rather than delayed rewards, but there are also adolescents who are in stressful environments who are not impulsive. We looked at what explains that link and what makes some people differ from others. One mechanism we found is sleep.6
The study used data from the Data from the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development Study, a multi-year brain development study funded by the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH). Data from 11,858 children aged between nine and 10 years old found that lack of sleep and long sleep latency (how long it takes to fall asleep) had a strong link to impulsive behaviors.7
The researchers’ data highlighted the important role that sleep plays in children’s cognitive and behavioral development and that this information can be used to create cost effective interventions to help in the psychological development of children experiencing stressors at home.
If you want to develop interventions for people in stressful environments, it’s very costly, and sometimes it needs generational work to change. Sleep is a modifiable behavior, and these changes can be cost-efficient.8
Sleep Deprivation Can Impact Development and Performance Even in Stress Free Environments
The study’s researchers noted that sleep deprivation can also be a problem in stress free environments. Zhang provided an example of how teenagers have a circadian rhythm that is adapted to staying up late at night and sleeping more in the morning; however, early start times at many schools and late nights completing homework can create an imbalance. She stated:
A lot of adolescents don’t have enough time to sleep, and they are sleep deprived. This study shows why it is important to promote longer sleep duration by delaying school start times or establishing routines so that adolescents know, ‘OK, after this event, I’m going to bed.9
Parents Can Play a Role in Correcting Children’s Sleep Behaviors
Dr. Pelayo notes that although sleep is a biological necessity, sleep habits are learned, which means that parents can play an important role in modeling good sleep habits to their children. He emphasizes that being a good role model is more effective than nagging or punishment, stating:
You can’t be smoking a cigarette and telling your kids not to smoke, right? Parents have to model healthy behavior themselves. If they’re sleep-deprived, their kids will likely be, too. … The first thing you want to do is to make sleep a priority in the family, so that sleep is not negotiable.10
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1 Glaze A. CDC: Children face ‘sleep crisis’ with potential impacts on mental health. CBS News Aug. 27, 2023.
4 Suttie J. Why Sleep Matters for Kids’ Bodies and Brains. Greater Good Magazine Mar. 17, 2023.
5 Zhang L. et al. Sleep mediates the effect of stressful environments on youth development of impulsivity: The moderating role of within default mode network resting-state functional connectivity. Sleep Health 2023; 9(4): 503-511.
6 Neuroscience News. Good Sleep Habits Can Buffer Kids From Stress-Linked Impulsivity. Aug. 29, 2023.
10 Suttie J. Why Sleep Matters for Kids’ Bodies and Brains. Greater Good Magazine Mar. 17, 2023.