Sleep Deprivation, Behavior, and the Young

These days, sleep is often seen as an expendable resource. With so much work to do and limited time to accomplish tasks, going to sleep later and waking up earlier seems so natural. For some people, lack of sleep was used to prove toughness and stamina. It was common for physician trainees to boast (in some cases complain) about getting little sleep. However, studies showing suboptimal patient care when residents are sleep-deprived have resulted in shorter working hours and mandatory time off after a number of hours at work.

Some of the most vulnerable to sleep deprivation are adolescents. With the economy faltering, parents and families are under enormous pressure, and children are bearing more stress than they should. This time period is also awkward for adolescents, because they are branching out and trying to discover themselves. In addition, they compete academically to gain admission to prized universities and to win scholarships. This competition, at times, can be stifling. To achieve their goals, many adolescents are cutting back on sleep, sometimes significantly. The National Sleep Foundation’s Sleep in America poll found that more than three-fourths of teens between the ages of 13-18 go to bed at 11:00 pm or later on school nights. It is not uncommon for high school students to be found at coffee cafes drinking large cups of coffee or lattes into the night as they finish their projects or study for an AP (advanced placement) class. Energy drinks, and even caffeine tablets to keep awake are being consumed and are causing irregular sleep patterns.

Sleeping teensThe loss of sleep in adolescents is causing more than just increased daytime sleepiness and irregular sleep patterns. A study examining the influence of sleep patterns in adolescents (ages 11-14) revealed symptoms of depression and a decrease in self-esteem with chronic loss of sleep. Those with insomnia were more likely to develop major depression, abuse drugs, and have nicotine dependence. Sleep deprived adolescents also experience more anger, sadness, and fear. Most alarming, however, has been the suicidal behavior exhibited in this group.

It is well known that sleep deprivation can affect brain activity. Insomnia and serotonin, in particular, may be linked to depression and suicidal behavior. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter important in the regulation of the sleep-wake cycle and has been found in decreased concentrations in the brainstem of suicide victims. Loss of sleep or the disturbance of sleep can cause fluctuations in serotonin.

Although there have not been many large studies examining loss of sleep and its effects on adolescent behavior, the effects of sleep deprivation in general have been well documented. Some of these effects include reduced short-term memory and learning ability, negative mood, inconsistent performance, poor productivity and loss of some forms of behavioral control. It is important for youth to have the proper amount of sleep. Doctors recommend at east 8 to 9 hours of sleep for teenagers.


S. Okie (2007). An Elusive Balance — Residents’ Work Hours and the Continuity of Care New England Journal of Medicine, 356 (26), 2665-2667 DOI: 10.1056/NEJMp078085

National Sleep Foundation. Sleepiness in Teens. Not Just a Side Effect of Growing Up.

J. John Mann (2003). Neurobiology of suicidal behaviour Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 4 (10), 819-828 DOI: 10.1038/nrn1220


Dr. RD is a medical doctor with experience in clinical research. An author and co-author of publications in peer-reviewed medical journals, her passion is educating patients, and she feels this is one of the most effective ways for disease prevention. She enjoys keeping abreast of the latest studies and events around the world that directly or indirectly impacts the medical field.
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