The Real Link Between Tired Teens and Drugs

A new study shows that many teens start using drugs because they're not getting enough sleep.

From the WebMD Archives

Is your teen on drugs? For years, many parents, doctors, and researchers have thought one reason teens sleep poorly is because they're dabbling in illegal substances. But a new study shows that just the opposite might be true: Many teens start using drugs because they're not getting enough sleep. And this all has a social dimension, too: Teens might not be getting enough shut-eye because their friends don't catch enough zzzs either.

"We tend to think of sleep deprivation as a symptom of other problems," says Sara Mednick, PhD, an assistant adjunct professor of psychiatry at University of California, San Diego. "In fact, it may be the cause of other problems." Mednick and her fellow researchers looked at sleep patterns and drug use among 8,349 teens over a two-year period in the mid-1990s. After analyzing the data, they found "clusters" of poor sleep behavior and drug use that extended out to four degrees of separation.

So if your daughter's friend is getting less than seven hours of sleep a night, the chances that your daughter will sleep less than seven hours a night rises 11% -- probably because your daughter and her friend are on the phone or instant messaging each other, Mednick says. Likewise, if your child's friend is smoking pot, the chance that your child might smoke pot more than doubles.

The Link Between Teen Sleep and Drug Use

But the really disturbing finding is this: If your daughter's friend sleeps less than seven hours a night, the likelihood of your daughter smoking pot rises 4%. Why? The researchers theorize that one teen's bad sleep influences the sleep patterns of the other. And poor sleep, in turn, can cause drug use because sleep deprivation has unpleasant consequences. Several studies have found, for instance, that sleep deprivation can lead to poor impulse control, substance abuse, and depression in teens.

Over the last few years, a number of studies have shown how emotions -- happiness, depression -- spread through social networks. But this study is the first to look at how those networks influence sleep patterns. It's also the first study to find that the spread of one behavior in social networks can influence the spread of another. "We see these are not one-way correlations," Mednick says.


Sleep Solutions for Teens

How can you ensure that your child's own sleep patterns don't cause her to seek drugs? Sara Mednick, PhD, offers these suggestions.

Set a digital cut-off time -- Tell your kids that after, say, 9 p.m., they are not permitted to get online, watch TV, or use their cell phones. "The blue light from computers and TV is exactly the kind of light that keeps people up," Mednick says.

Work with school -- Realizing the importance of sleep for teens, some high schools are now allowing kids to nap during the day or start the day later. Talk to the principal about this idea or take it to the school board.

Stay regular -- If you let your child stay up late on the weekend -- and then sleep in until noon or later -- his biological clock can get even more disrupted. Instead, help your teen keep regular bedtime hours, seven days a week.

WebMD Magazine - Feature Reviewed by Michael J. Breus, PhD on October 05, 2010



Sara Mednick, PhD, assistant adjunct professor of psychiatry, UC San Diego, San Diego.

Mednick SC, et al., PLoS ONE 5(3): e9775. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0009775

Fowler JH, et al. BMJ: 2008; 337: 2338.

Cacioppo JT, et al., Journal of Personality and Social Psychology; 2009; 97:977-91.

Rosenquist JN, et al. Molecular Psychiatry. March 16, 2010.

© 2010 WebMD, LLC. All rights reserved.


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