Why Teens Who Are Night Owls Are More Likely to Be Reckless

Teens who are night owls have a harder time 'self-regulating' their emotions and behavior. (Photo: ArtOfPhotos/Shutterstock)

For some parents, there's a lot of time and energy spent dragging groggy teens out of bed and off to school where they often wind up being late, regardless of how many alarms were set or how many parental threats issued. Thanks to mood swings, there are fights over everything from grades to bedtimes to poor choices.

Sounds fun, right?

These issues often are chalked up to standard teen behavior, but new studies have found there might be more of a scientific explanation — and it might have more to do with when your teen sleeps rather than how long.

There has been a lot of talk about chronotypes and how a they affect a person's sleep cycle. A chronotype is the term used by sleep experts to describe the period of time in which people are "programmed" to sleep. We've known for years that this period of time shifts as kids leave adolescence and enter their teenage years, explaining why teens are more likely to stay up at night and sleep in later in the morning. The fix for this, or so everyone thought, was to force night-owl teens to hit the hay earlier so that they could get enough sleep before school the next morning.

Sleeping teen
For teens who are night owls, an early start leads to destructive behaviors. (Photo: Paisit Teeraphatsakool/Shutterstock)

But Dr. Judith Owens, a Harvard faculty neurologist and director of the Center for Pediatric Sleep Disorders at Boston Children’s Hospital, uncovered a kink in that logic. For teens who are "wired" to be night owls, Owens found that the quality of sleep is affected not so much by how much they sleep as it is by when they log those sleep hours.

In a study published in the journal Pediatrics, Owens looked at the sleep and behavior patterns of middle and high school-aged teens in Virginia who all had to be at school before the first bell rang at 7:20 a.m. She found that even when the number of sleep hours was the same, kids who were night owls were more likely to have issues with self-regulation than kids who were "morning people." In other words, night-owl teens displayed less control over their emotional, cognitive and behavioral outcomes when they had to get up early, even if the number of hours they slept was the same as other kids.

This lack of control has been associated with a number of negative behaviors such as substance abuse, depression and reckless driving.

Pediatricians, sleep experts and even the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have recently begun recommending later school start times in an effort to help teens catch more zzz's — because lack of sleep is still a real issue for this age group. Financial and logistical issues (busing, school sports, parent's work schedules) are the biggest road blocks to making these changes.

But as Owens' research suggests, this isn't just about babying teens who like to stay up late. It's about making sure that teens who are wired to be night owls not only get enough sleep, but also get sleep at the right hours so they can learn more at school and do a better job of controlling their emotions and resisting self-destructive impulses.