Teens’ brains develop differently depends whether they are night owls or early birds. On a weeknight at eleven o’clock, your teenager still has the light in the room. It can be challenging to help our kids get the rest they need for school the next day.
Our new research reveals what happens to young teenagers’ brains and manners years after becoming “night owls.”
In the teenage years, we discovered that this shift in sleep patterns raised the likelihood of behavioral issues and slowed brain growth.
But there is some good news for night owls as well.
Sleep habits shift
During adolescence, sleep patterns shift. Teenagers can stay awake longer, go to bed later, and lie the following day.
Many teens also shift from being morning larks to night owls.
They prefer to go to sleep later and wake up the next day because they feel more active and alert later in the evening.
This shift to “eveningness” may conflict with a teen’s schoolwork and employment. Night owl teenagers are more likely to experience emotional and behavioral difficulties than morning larks, which may be due to a chronic lack of sleep brought on by these irregular sleep patterns.
New studies also suggest that the brain structures of larks in the morning and owls at night differ. There are variations in gray and white matter, which has connected to variations in memory, emotional stability, attention, and empathy.
Even so, it could be more apparent how this relationship might develop. Are mental and behavioral issues later in life more likely among night owls? Or are people more likely to become night owls due to cognitive and behavioral problems?
In our research, we followed teenagers over a long period to provide answers to these issues.
What we did about Teens’ brains develop
We surveyed over 200 teenagers and their parents to know more about their sleep preferences and emotional and behavioral health. For the following seven years, participants must complete these questions multiple times.
The teenagers were also subjected to two brain scans, one several years apart, to study their brain growth. We concentrated on mapping changes in the structure of white matter, which is the connective tissue in the brain that allows it to process information and function properly.
Previous research has revealed that the white matter structures of morning larks and night owls differ. Yet, this is the first study to examine how sleep habits change and how white matter grows over time.
Here’s what we found
Teens who developed a night owl personality in early adolescence (around 12-13) were more prone to behavioral issues many years later. Increased hostility, rule-breaking, and antisocial behavior were among the results.
However, they were not at an increased risk of emotional issues such as anxiety or depression.
It is important to note that this association did not occur in the opposite direction. In other words, previous emotional and behavioral issues did not affect whether a kid became a morning lark or a night owl in late adolescence.
Our research also revealed that teens who switched to becoming night owls developed their brains at a different rate than teens who remained morning larks.
We discovered that night owls’ white matter did not expand to the same extent as teens who were morning larks.
White matter development is critical during adolescence to support cognitive, emotional, and behavioral development.
What are the implications?
We also show that becoming a night owl increases the risk of behavioral problems and delayed brain development in later adolescence rather than the other way around.
These findings emphasize the need to pay attention to kids’ sleep-wake routines early in adolescence to promote their eventual emotional and behavioral health. We all know that getting adequate sleep is critical for mental and physical health.
Here’s some good news
Night owls shouldn’t despair, though. Our study demonstrates that preferences between early birds and night owls are not permanent. Our choices and habits for sleeping can be changed, according to research.
For instance, being exposed to light, even artificial light changes our circadian rhythms, which can affect how we like to sleep. Therefore, reducing our late-night exposure to screens and bright lights can change our preferences and increase our desire for sleep.
Early morning exposure to light can also assist in resetting our internal clocks to a more morning-oriented rhythm. Before leaving for school or work, you could encourage your teen to eat breakfast outside, go onto a balcony, or go into the garden.