It’s 11 p.m. on a weeknight and your teen still has his bedroom light on. You want them to get enough sleep to go to school the next day, but that’s a struggle.
Our new search shows what happens to the brains and behavior of young teenagers, years after they have become “night owls”.
We found that this change in sleep patterns increased the risk of having behavioral problems and delayed brain development in late adolescence.
But it’s not all bad news for night owls.
Sleep patterns change
people’s sleep patterns change during their adolescence. Teenagers may stay awake longer, fall asleep later, and lie the next day.
Many adolescents also go from the status of morning lark to a night owl. They feel more productive and alert later in the evening, preferring to fall asleep later and wake up later the next day.
This shift to “evening out” can conflict with school and teenage work. A chronic lack of sleep, due to these imbalanced sleep schedules, may explain why teenage night owls are at greatest risk for emotional and behavioral issues than those who are morning larks.
Emerging research also indicates that morning larks and night owls behave differently. brain structure. This includes differences in gray and white matter, which have been linked to differences in memory, emotional well-being, attention and empathy.
Despite these ties, it is unclear how this relationship could emerge. Does being a night owl increase the risk of later emotional and behavioral problems? Or do emotional and behavioral issues cause someone to become more of a night owl?
In our study, we attempted to answer these questions by following adolescents for many years.
What we have done
We asked more than 200 teens and their parents to complete a series of questionnaires about teens’ sleep preferences and their emotional and behavioral well-being. Participants repeated these questionnaires several times over the next seven years.
The teens also had two brain scans, years apart, to examine their brain development. We focused on mapping changes in the structure of white matter – the connective tissue in the brain that allows our brains to process information and function efficiently.
Previous research shows white matter structure of morning larks and night owls to differ. However, our study is the first to examine how changes in sleep preferences might affect white matter growth over time.
Here’s what we found
Teenagers who became night owls in their early teens (around age 12-13) were more likely to have behavioral problems many years later. This included greater aggression, rule breaking and anti-social behavior.
But they were not at increased risk for emotional problems, such as anxiety or low mood.
It is important to note that this relationship did not occur in reverse. In other words, we found that prior emotional and behavioral problems did not influence whether an adolescent becomes more of a morning lark or a night owl in late adolescence.
Our research also showed that teens who became night owls had a different rate of brain development than teens who remained morning larks.
We found that the white matter of night owls did not increase to the same degree as that of adolescents who were morning larks.
We know about white matter growth is important in adolescence to support cognitive, emotional and behavioral development.
What are the implications?
These findings are based on Previous search showing differences in brain structure between morning larks and night owls. It also builds on previous research that indicates these changes could emerge during teenagehood.
Importantly, we show that becoming a night owl increases the risk of experiencing behavioral problems and delayed brain development in late adolescence, rather than the reverse.
These findings underscore the importance of focusing on adolescent sleep-wake habits in early adolescence to support their later emotional and behavioral health. We know getting enough sleep is Extremely important for mental and brain health.
Here is good news
It’s not all bad news for night owls. As our research shows, the preferences of morning larks and night owls are not set in stone. Research indicates that we can change our sleep preferences and patterns.
For example, exposure to light (even artificial) alters our circadian rhythms, which can influence our sleep preferences. Thus, minimizing nighttime exposure to bright lights and screens can be a way edit our preferences and desire to sleep.
Exposure to light First thing in the morning can also help shift our internal clock to a more morning pace. You can encourage your teen to eat breakfast outside or go to a balcony or garden before going to school or work.
Rebecca Cooperdoctoral student in neuropsychiatry, The University of Melbourne; Maria Di BiasePrincipal Investigator, Psychiatry, The University of Melbourneand vanessa croleyprincipal researcher, The University of Melbourne