Tired teenagers more likely to have unprotected sex, study finds

‘Sexual risk-taking in adolescence poses serious health concerns,’ says Dr Wendy Troxel

Phoebe Weston
Science Correspondent
Monday 03 June 2019 14:12
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Researchers carried out a long-term study of 1,850 adolescents and young adults in Southern California(stock image)
Researchers carried out a long-term study of 1,850 adolescents and young adults in Southern California(stock image)

Sleep-deprived teenagers are more likely to have unprotected sex under the influence of alcohol or drugs, new research has found.

Scientists say the majority of teenagers do not get the recommended eight to 10 hours sleep a night, meaning they are more impulsive and likely to make bad decisions.

Those who consistently did not get enough sleep were twice as likely to have unprotected sex than those who slept in an extra three and a half hours at the weekend, according to the paper published in the journal Health Psychology.

“Insufficient sleep may increase the potential for sexual risk-taking by compromising decision-making and influencing impulsivity,” said senior behavioural and social scientist Wendy Troxel at RAND Corporation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan research institution.

“Sexual risk-taking in adolescence poses serious health concerns, such as an increased potential of getting sexually transmitted infections, including HIV,” said Dr Troxel, who has previously argued that school should start later for teens.

Researchers carried out a long-term study of 1,850 teenagers and young adults in Southern California. Data was collected four times between 2013 and 2017 and participants were on average 16 years old in 2013 and 19 years old in 2017.

Teens reported how much sleep they were getting on weekdays and weekends during the four weeks prior to the survey. They also reported whether they had used alcohol, marijuana or other drugs right before or during sexual activity, and if they used a condom.

Researchers found the majority of teens got an average of 7.5 hours of sleep per school night. Only 26 per cent of teens could be classified as sufficient weekday sleepers, averaging about 8.5 hours per night.

Most teens in the study were intermediate weekend sleepers, clocking in just over nine hours. Long weekend sleepers got an average of 10.6 hours and short weekend sleepers got an average of 7.8 hours.

“Teens who were short weekday and short weekend sleepers were not getting adequate sleep during the school week and were not catching up on sleep on the weekends, and thus were chronically sleep-deprived,” said Dr Troxel.

“We predicted that sleep-deprived teens would be at higher risk for engaging in risky sexual behaviours, based on prior evidence that sleep loss is associated with impaired decision-making and impulsivity,” Dr Troxel told The Independent.

“In addition, neuroscience research has shown that sleep loss leads to an increase in activity in the parts of the brain that are associated with emotions and reward-seeking behaviour, the amygdala. At the same time, the brain shows reductions in activity in the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that is responsible for reigning in those risky behaviours.”

Researchers say this study adds to a growing body of research about the potential role of sleep disturbances and adolescent risk-taking behaviours.

“On one hand, we should encourage sleep routines for teens because regularity is important for maintaining healthy sleep and circadian rhythms,” said Dr Troxel.

“However, for most US teens, whose weekday sleep opportunities are constrained due to early school start times, maintaining consistency in sleep-wake schedules throughout the week may not only be unrealistic, but also may be unhealthy, if it perpetuates a pattern of chronic sleep deprivation.”

Dr Troxel has suggested possible strategies that may help teens get the sleep their bodies need.

“Our recommendation is for parents and teens to find a middle ground, which allows for some weekend catch-up sleep, while maintaining some level of consistency in sleep-wake patterns,” she said.

“We also need to encourage school districts to consider delaying school start times because this could make a substantial difference in helping teens get adequate sleep.”

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