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Lack of sleep increases teens’ likelihood of engaging in risky sexual behaviors

Photo of Wendy Troxel
Wendy M. Troxel

Adolescents who get less than 8 to 10 hours of sleep a night may be at increased risk for risky sexual behaviors, including engaging in sex without a condom or under the influence of drugs or alcohol, according to recent findings.

“We know from prior research that sleep loss can cause impairments in judgement and decision-making, as well as increases in impulsive behavior,” “Wendy M. Troxel, PhD, study author and senior behavioral and social scientist at RAND Corporation, told Infectious Diseases in Children. “Therefore, we predicted that teens who are chronically sleep-deprived would be at higher risk for engaging in unsafe sexual behaviors, like having sex without a condom or having sex while using drugs or alcohol.”

Troxel and colleagues conducted a longitudinal study of 1,850 adolescents. Specifically, the researchers examined the teens’ sleep duration, variability between weekend and weekday sleep duration, and sleep quality through four annual assessments conducted between 2013 and 2017. They examined the teens’ risky sexual behaviors in the fourth assessment when participants were aged 19 years.

Teens who slept an average of 6.35 hours on weekends — or “short” weekend sleepers — were 2.2 times more likely to report risky sexual behaviors compared with those who received a sufficient amount of sleep.

Teens who had less variability in the amount of sleep they received on weekdays and weekends were 1.6 to two times more likely to report risky sexual behaviors compared with those who reported greater variability in sleep duration. The researchers noted that this finding was “contrary to expectations,” but lack of sleep duration variability may be a sign of chronic insufficient sleep.

Although no significant differences in risky sexual behaviors were observed among teens with varying weekday sleep duration or quality, teens who reported persistently short and poor-quality sleep were at a slightly increased risk for engaging in these behaviors, according to the researchers.

“Pediatricians and other adolescent care providers can help families recognize that multipronged strategies are needed to reduce the epidemic of sleep loss,” Troxel said. “This includes counseling families on the importance of parental monitoring and rule-setting around bedtimes and use of technology, as well as policy changes such as encouraging school districts to heed the science and delay school start times for middle and high school students.”– by Katherine Bortz

Disclosure: Troxel reports no relevant financial disclosures.

Photo of Wendy Troxel
Wendy M. Troxel

Adolescents who get less than 8 to 10 hours of sleep a night may be at increased risk for risky sexual behaviors, including engaging in sex without a condom or under the influence of drugs or alcohol, according to recent findings.

“We know from prior research that sleep loss can cause impairments in judgement and decision-making, as well as increases in impulsive behavior,” “Wendy M. Troxel, PhD, study author and senior behavioral and social scientist at RAND Corporation, told Infectious Diseases in Children. “Therefore, we predicted that teens who are chronically sleep-deprived would be at higher risk for engaging in unsafe sexual behaviors, like having sex without a condom or having sex while using drugs or alcohol.”

Troxel and colleagues conducted a longitudinal study of 1,850 adolescents. Specifically, the researchers examined the teens’ sleep duration, variability between weekend and weekday sleep duration, and sleep quality through four annual assessments conducted between 2013 and 2017. They examined the teens’ risky sexual behaviors in the fourth assessment when participants were aged 19 years.

Teens who slept an average of 6.35 hours on weekends — or “short” weekend sleepers — were 2.2 times more likely to report risky sexual behaviors compared with those who received a sufficient amount of sleep.

Teens who had less variability in the amount of sleep they received on weekdays and weekends were 1.6 to two times more likely to report risky sexual behaviors compared with those who reported greater variability in sleep duration. The researchers noted that this finding was “contrary to expectations,” but lack of sleep duration variability may be a sign of chronic insufficient sleep.

Although no significant differences in risky sexual behaviors were observed among teens with varying weekday sleep duration or quality, teens who reported persistently short and poor-quality sleep were at a slightly increased risk for engaging in these behaviors, according to the researchers.

“Pediatricians and other adolescent care providers can help families recognize that multipronged strategies are needed to reduce the epidemic of sleep loss,” Troxel said. “This includes counseling families on the importance of parental monitoring and rule-setting around bedtimes and use of technology, as well as policy changes such as encouraging school districts to heed the science and delay school start times for middle and high school students.”– by Katherine Bortz

Disclosure: Troxel reports no relevant financial disclosures.

    Perspective
    Amy Middleman

    Amy Middleman

    The findings from this study not only support an association between poor sleep hygiene and increased likelihood of high-risk sexual behavior, it helps validate the sleep recommendations from parents to their children across time. There has been work showing that adolescent risk behaviors tend to cluster together; the same variables that contribute to one risk behavior often contribute to multiple risk behaviors. Evidence is building that poor sleep may be one of those variables.

    As the authors note, causality cannot be established from these data, but there is an association that should encourage providers to start sleep hygiene counseling well before and throughout the onset of adolescence. This way, providers will be supporting the never-ending efforts of parents for many years to come.

    • Amy Middleman, MD, MSEd, MPH
    • Infectious Diseases in Children Editorial Board Member
      CMRI Richard Kasterke/Connie Griggs Endowed Chair
      Professor of pediatrics
      Chief of adolescent medicine
      University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center

    Disclosures: Middleman reports no relevant financial disclosures.