Teens, Sleep Habits, and Mental Health: What’s the Relationship?

A recent article from Reuters led with the following headline:

“Teen night owls more prone to emotional and behavioral problems.”

This piqued our interest.

Let’s get something out of the way immediately: although the information in the article is based on a scientific survey of almost 5,000 students age 12-18, the data is correlative, rather than causative. Here’s a quick refresher on the difference between correlation and causation, from a helpful webpage published by the Australian Bureau of Statistics:

Correlation is a statistical measure that describes the relationship between two or more variables. Correlation between variables foes not mean a change in one variable is the cause of the change in the other variable.

Causation indicates that one variable or event is the result of the other variable or event. This is simple cause and effect.

For example, a cause and effect relationship is like this: cigarette smoking causes in increased risk of lung cancer. Whereas a correlative relationship goes something like this: people who smoke cigarettes are more likely to have an alcohol use disorder. In example one, the smoking actually causes cancer, while in example two, smoking cigarettes does not cause an increased risk of developing an alcohol use disorder.

It’s an important distinction to understand.

Now that we’ve got that cleared up, here’s what the study – conducted by researchers in Hong Kong – found about the relationship between adolescent sleep patterns and behavioral and emotional problems:

  • 23% of the students preferred to go to bed late and get up early: these are the night owls.
  • The night owls were 88% more likely to have emotional and behavioral problems than the non-night owls.
  • The night owls were 25% more likely to have poor mental health.
  • About 50% of the night owls had symptoms of insomnia, meaning they have a hard time falling asleep and staying asleep.
  • The students who had insomnia were three times as likely to develop emotional, behavioral, or other mental health issues

The reason this data is interesting as opposed to alarming lies in the experimental design: it was not an experiment, but rather, a survey. An experiment involves a control group against which a researcher can compare results from an experimental group and a placebo group. For example, to study whether aspirin works on headaches, scientists give ten people with headaches an aspirin, ten people with headaches a placebo, and ten people nothing at all. When the results say that eight out of ten people in the aspirin group no longer had a headache after an hour, while the other twenty people still had headaches after an hour, researchers can conclude that aspirin works well on headaches.

This survey on the relationship between teen sleep patterns and mental health had neither a control nor a placebo group, which means the data is correlative as opposed to causative.

The Takeaway

So, how can this correlative information help parents?

It’s fairly simple: if your teenager is a night owl, then be on the lookout for classic signs of emotional and behavioral problems. If your teenager shows symptoms of depression such as moodiness, sadness, and lack of motivation for activities and they’re a night owl, then it might be wise to pay special attention to their moods. If your teenager shows symptoms of anxiety, such as persistent, excessive worry about events they can’t control and they’re a night owl, then it might also be wise to pay extra attention to their worries and fears.

Since the study presents a chicken-egg dilemma – it doesn’t explain how lack of sleep might cause emotional/behavioral problems or vice versa – a final takeaway for parents is something else very basic: teach teenage night owls good sleep hygiene. These include keeping their sleeping area cool and completely dark, stopping the use of electronic devices at least half an hour before bedtime, and making sure the bed is for sleeping, rather than surfing the internet, texting, or talking on the phone.

The bonus?

A well-rested teenager – one not cranky or moody just from sleep deprivation – makes the home an easier place to be for everyone in the family.