People comparing current crime rates with those of past decades tend to agree that today’s numbers should be lower. And new research points to a relatively easy way to do that: Help teens get more sleep.
Researchers found that teens who reported feeling drowsy in the middle of the afternoon (and showed objective measures of sleepiness) were more than 4 times more likely to commit a crime within 14 years as teens who were less drowsy.
The research by no means suggests that just because a teen is sleepy during the middle of the day he or she will go on to become a criminal. It does, however, suggest that finding ways to help teens get more sleep may prevent some of the behaviors that make them more likely to get into trouble later on.
“Just asking teenagers a simple question about how alert or sleepy they are can give us an indication of which kids may be more likely to commit crime in the future,” Raine explained.
Previous research has shown a link between antisocial behavior in kids ― breaking rules, not listening to parents and teachers, swearing and fighting ― and sleep problems (and that it’s sleep problems causing the behavior, rather than the other way around). And there’s plenty of research to suggest that kids who are more combative and disobedient are more likely to be involved in criminal activity as adults.
But you never really know what causes what, Raine said. “Does being antisocial cause a kid to have sleep problems? Or do sleep problems cause the antisocial behavior and predispose a kid to becoming more violent as an adult?”
The new study, published in The Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, suggests that sleep problems really might be the root of the problem, Raine explained.
“It may be that just educating these at-risk kids with simple sleep-hygiene education might actually make a bit of a dent in the future crime statistics,” Raine said.
Biology, drowsiness and crime
Raine and his colleagues collected data from 101 15-year-old boys from three schools in England. All of the boys rated how sleepy they were. The researchers also tracked objective measures of sleepiness by recording brain-wave activity and sweat-rate responses to various tones played via headphones (a physiological indicator researchers use to track a person’s attention levels).
The researchers additionally collected behavior ratings for each boy from at least two longtime teachers, using a scale that assessed destructiveness, swearing, disobedience and fighting.
These data were gathered in 1978 and 1979 as part of research originally designed to study what causes kids to act up ― and whether there were certain physiological characteristics that raise the odds that a kid will behave badly, and become a criminal as an adult.
In 1993, after 14 years, the researchers searched public criminal records. Seventeen boys from the original group had been convicted of committing violent crimes or property offenses between ages 15 (when the researchers had measured their daytime drowsiness) and 29.
More recent research linking bad behavior and sleep problems inspired Raine to go back to this old data to see if sleepy kids were more likely to become criminal offenders.
The boys who reported being most sleepy in the afternoons were 4.5 times more likely than boys who were the least sleepy to have criminal records at age 29.
“It really does look like sleep problems ― [which result in] daytime drowsiness ― are a risk factor for criminal offense,” Raine said.
Previous studies have shown that sleep deprivation limits function of the brain’s prefrontal cortex (the part that sits above your eyes, just behind your forehead). This part of the brain helps regulate attention levels, as well as control impulsive and emotional behavior.
This part of the brain is known to be impaired in individuals with behavior problems, and in people convicted of violent offenses.
Sleep is something we can do something about.
The researchers chose a diverse group of boys from different schools, and they took into account social factors like economic status. (It turned out that the boys from lower socioeconomic status households were more likely to be sleepy in the afternoon.) But, it’s still important to point out that this is only one study that included one group of students, Raine said.
To better understand the importance of sleepiness during childhood and adolescence in terms of an individual’s risk of committing a crime in the future, larger groups of kids would need to be followed, Raine said.
Plus, for each boy in this study, daytime sleepiness was only measured during one session ― so it’s possible other factors like illness or just a bad night’s sleep could have affected the data.
Still, the finding that daytime sleepiness in teens may be a risk factor for later criminal behavior opens a lot of opportunities for further research.
Lack of sleep is only one risk factor that may affect an individual’s odds of becoming a criminal, Raine said, noting genetic and social factors. “But sleep is something we can do something about,” he said.
The bottom line, according to Raine: Finding ways to help teens get more sleep is fairly easy and may make a difference in reducing criminal behavior later on.