Sleep-Deprived Teens More Likely to Commit Crimes than Adults

New research out of the University of York in the United Kingdom and the University of Pennsylvania reported that teens who report midday sleepiness tend to show more anti-social behaviors like fighting, cheating, stealing, and lying.  In fact, more than a decade later, those same tired teens were 4-1/2 times more likely to commit violent crimes.

One of the lead authors of the study is Adrian Raine, who is a Professor at Richard Perry University and a member of the Criminology and Psychology Department in the School of Arts & Sciences, as well as Penn’s Perelman School of Medicine Department of Psychiatry.  This is one of the first studies to link daytime sleepiness in teens to criminal activity more than a decade later.

These findings were published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry. 

As part of his Ph.D. research, Dr. Raine collected data 39 years ago, under the guidance of Peter Venables from the University of York.  He never truly analyzed this data, however.  There has been a recent influx in cross-sectional studies analyzing behaviors at specific points in time in order to link behavioral problems and sleep deprivation in children.  In response to these studies, Dr. Raine reviewed his dissertation and research to find a link between criminal behaviors in adulthood and sleep loss in childhood and adolescence.

The previous research focused heavily on sleep problems, but in the recent study, researchers measured daytime drowsiness in the children instead.

Drs. Raine and Venables used a sample size of 101 teenage boys (15 years of age) from three different schools in northern England.  Each lab session ran from 1 to 3 p.m.  At the end of these sessions, Dr. Raine would ask the participants to rate their sleepiness on a scale of 1 to 7, with 1 being ‘unusually alert’ and 7 being ‘sleepy.’  He captured information on sweat-rate responses and brain-wave activity to stimuli.  These measured attention levels to a musical tone played through headphones, representing attentional function.

Dr. Raine collected information about anti-social behavior, both from teachers who had worked with the teen for a minimum of four years, as well as those behaviors self-reported by the boys.

Both measurements were helpful because some of the boys did not want to discuss their behaviors, which is where the information from the teachers became useful.  Surprisingly, the teacher and participant reports correlated well.  This is atypical, because you generally get a different story from the kid than you would get from the teacher.

Dr. Raine followed these same participants by searching London’s Central Criminal Records Office for any criminal activity between the ages of 15 and 29.  He excluded minor violations and focused on property damage offenses and violent crimes.  Also, he only looked at crimes for which the participate was formally convicted.  It was noted that 17% of the boys had some sort of violent criminal behavior by the age of 29.

Dr. Raine incorporated socioeconomic status into his conclusions, noting a definite connection.  The link was found between low social class and early social diversity leading to daytime sleepiness, which in turn led to brain dysfunction and inattention, resulting in criminal behavior 14 years later.  Dr. Raine describes this finding as a flow diagram moving cleanly from one point to the next.

In other words, poor attention is connected to daytime sleepiness.  That lack of focus then serves as the proxy for a dysfunctional brain, which, in Dr. Raine’s analysis, can lead to criminal behavior.

Scientists do emphasize, however, that drowsiness does not predispose a teen to anti-social behavior and criminal activity.  Thousands of children suffer from sleep problems and do not grow up to break the law.  However, it is notable that researchers did find a greater prevalence of anti-social behavior in teens who reported midday sleepiness, which lead to a higher occurrence of crime later in life.

This provides an opportunity to help identify and treat children with behavioral disorders.  A simple trial of getting more quality sleep at night may help solve the behavioral problems.


Rachael Herman is a professional writer with an extensive background in medical writing, research, and language development. Her hobbies include reading, traveling, and cooking.


1 thought on “Sleep-Deprived Teens More Likely to Commit Crimes than Adults

  1. Michelle Henry Reply

    What an interesting read! It just shows how much sleep effects us whether we like to admit it or not.

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