Teenagers who feel sleepy in the middle of the day are more likely to engage in antisocial behaviors, such as lying, cheating, stealing, and fighting. Now, a new study shows that those same teens are 4.5 times more likely to commit serious crimes as adults.
“It’s the first study to our knowledge to show that daytime sleepiness during teenage years are associated with criminal offending 14 years later,” said Adrian Raine, the Richard Perry University Professor of Criminology, Psychiatry, and Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania.
Perry and Peter Venables, an emeritus psychology professor at the University of York in England, published their findings in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry.
Raine had gathered the data for this study 39 years earlier as part of his Ph.D. dissertation (studying under Venables) but had never analyzed it. Recently, he began noticing cross-sectional studies — those that evaluate several behaviors at a single point in time — connecting sleep and behavioral problems in children. He pulled out his old data to see if there is an association between sleep and criminal behavior in adulthood.
“A lot of the prior research focused on sleep problems, but in our study we measured, very simply, how drowsy the child is during the day,” said Raine.
Raine evaluated 101 teens (aged 15 years) from three secondary schools in northern England. At the start and end of each two-hour afternoon lab session (1:00 to 3:00 p.m.), he asked participants to rate their degree of sleepiness on a seven point scale, with one being “unusually alert” and seven being “sleepy.” He also measured brain-wave activity and sweat-rate responses to stimuli, which indicates the level of attention a person pays to a tone being played over headphones. This represents brain-attentional function, Raine said.
Next he gathered data about the teens’ anti-social behavior, both self-reported from the study participants, as well as from two or three teachers who had worked with each teen for at least four years.
“Both are helpful. There are kids who don’t really want to talk about their anti-social behavior, and that’s where the teacher reports really come in handy,” Raine said. “Actually, the teacher and child reports correlated quite well in this study, which is not usual. Often, what the teacher says, what the parent says, what the child says — it’s usually three different stories.”
Finally, Raine conducted a computerized search at the Central Criminal Records Office in London to determine if any of the original 101 participants had a criminal record at age 29. Raine excluded minor violations, focusing only on violent crimes and property offenses and only those crimes for which participants had been convicted. His findings revealed that 17 percent of the original participants had committed a crime by the age of 29.
With these data in hand, Raine also factored in the participants’ socioeconomic status. He found a connection.
“Is it the case that low social class and early social adversity results in daytime drowsiness, which results in inattention or brain dysfunction, which results 14 years later in crime? The answer’s yes,” he said. “Think of a flow diagram from A to B to C to D. Think of a chain. There is a significant link.”
“Daytime drowsiness is associated with poor attention. Take poor attention as a proxy for poor brain function. If you’ve got poor brain functioning, you’re more likely to be criminal.”
Of course, drowsiness in and of itself doesn’t always predispose a teenage boy to becoming antisocial, said the researchers. And many children with sleep problems do not become lawbreakers. But they did observe that teens with sleepiness and a greater frequency of antisocial behavior were more likely to commit crimes as adults.
These findings could potentially help with a simple treatment plan for children with behavioral issues: Get more sleep at night.
“That could make a difference not just for anti-social behavior at school with these teenage kids but more importantly, with later serious criminal behavior,” Raine said. “More sleep won’t solve crime, but it might make a bit of a dent.”