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August 10, 2016

Sleep and Substance Use among Adolescents

By: Youth and Social Issues Program

image of girl sleeping and wakingDuring adolescence (a period of intense growth and change), teens need consistent and adequate sleep (8-10 hours a day), but they frequently obtain inadequate sleep for a variety of reasons. Their changing circadian rhythms, for instance, tell them to go to sleep late, but the school day starts early. Sleep and substance use are connected: less sleep relates to more substance use, and more substance use relates to less sleep. Little is known about the underlying causes of sleep/substance use relationships or how these relationships are affected by factors such as physical and mental health. Inadequate sleep may put adolescents at greater risk for using various drugs.

Recent research by SRC Research Associate Yvonne Terry-McElrath and colleagues aimed to explore risk factors related to sleep and use of specific substances among US adolescents. In particular, they examined how getting at least 7 hours of sleep was related to adolescent use of cigarettes, alcohol, marijuana, amphetamines, and narcotics other than heroin (like Vicodin and codeine). Further they explored how six types of covariates (sociodemographics, general health, academic performance, non-academic time use, deviance, and psychosocial factors) affected adolescent sleep/substance use relationships. The study used nationally representative, cross-sectional data from 1991 to 2014 provided by 8th, 10th, and 12th graders in the Monitoring the Future study.

Results showed that 7+ hours of sleep decreased by grade, and the frequency of use of all substances increased significantly by grade. Getting 7+ hours of sleep was related to using each examined substance less frequently. Sleep/substance use associations were strongest for 8th graders.

Three covariate groups strongly affected sleep/substance use relationships. The strongest association was found for deviance covariates (truancy, aggression, and theft or property damage), which were associated with lower 7+ sleep and higher substance use frequency. Controlling for psychosocial covariates (self-esteem and risk preferences) decreased the degree to which sleep and substance were associated, particularly for 8th and 10th graders. Controlling for general health covariates (exercise and nutrition) decreased the sleep and substance use associations for 12th graders.

Results indicated that adolescent sleep and substance use are associated with each other via shared associations with other behavioral and psychosocial covariates. For example, reduced sleep may affect general health, mental well-being, and getting into trouble, which then may affect substance use. Knowledge about these shared associations can be used to refine substance use prevention and intervention efforts for optimal effectiveness.