Teen drug use and sleep loss are contagious

Sleep problems can have an impact on almost everything. Sleep difficulties have been linked to an increase in behavioural, cognitive, and emotional problems; difficulties with impulse control, emotional regulation, and poor school performance have all been linked to a lack of sleep. And teenagers may be at risk for problems with sleep as their "internal clock" shifts to a preference for later bedtimes and waking times, while most high school classes begin early in the morning. There may be social pressures that affect sleep as well - if 10 of your friends are playing Call of Duty at 11 PM, are you more likely to be awake at that time?

A new study published in the online journal PLOSone examined the spread of sleep problems and drug use in teen social circles. The researchers surveyed over 90,000 students between Grades 7 and 12; they then asked the participants to list 5 male and 5 female friends and followed the group for 8 years. In this way, they were able to generate a diagram of the students' social network and observe how sleep behaviour and drug use spreads through the group.

The results show that both behaviours spread through the group, affecting students up to four degrees of separation away (to the friends of one's friends' friends' friends)! Participants' risk of drug use increased when their friend's sleep was poor, partly because of the spread of sleep difficulties - sleep loss led to increased drug use. Sleep problems were more common for people who were at the center of the social network; the most popular people were more likely to sleep less, and were also more likely to use drugs! Each contact that slept less than 7 hours (teens need about 8.5 hours of sleep) increased the likelihood of sleep problems by 5%; every drug-using contact increased the drug-use probability by 42%! On the positive side, every contact who did not use drugs decreased the likelihood of drug use by 10%.

These findings could have important implications for programs targeting drug use - treating sleep problems might have a positive impact on drug use that could spread through adolescent communities. Targeting teens at the center of the network might be most important, since it could have an impact on the most students. Anti-drug interventions might also target these popular youth to increase their impact by reducing friends' drug use. The researchers suggested that a program promoting napping after school might be easier than attempts to encourage teens to go to bed earlier. Sleep hygiene is important, too, though.

You can read the PLOSone.org study here.

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