School Start Time Conference - Session 04:

Deficient Sleep in Teens:  The Impact on Mood and Risky Behavior - Wendy Troxel, PhD


Wendy Troxel, PhD, Senior Behavioral and Social Scientist, RAND Corporation.

Dr. Troxel discusses the impact of teen sleep deficits in the context of  “The Adolescent Paradox,” a period in which adolescents experience a peak stage in physical and cognitive health, yet one characterized by a 200% increase in morbidity and mortality. In looking at the underlying causes of death, Dr. Troxel notes that about 75% are due to car crashes, suicides, and homicides, each of which is associated with problems regulating emotions and behavior.

Dr. Troxel then turns to the role sleep plays in the brain’s regulation of emotional processes and risk-taking behavior.  Experimental studies have established clear causal mechanisms explaining why healthy subjects who are deprived of sleep show heightened emotional responses, an inability to control their emotions, impulsivity, and greater risk-taking.  Dr. Troxel discusses large scale empirical studies linking adolescent sleep problems with the increased substance use, smoking, violence, risky sexual behavior, reckless driving, anxiety, depression and suicide ideation.  Moreover, these problems and behaviors not only contribute directly to the elevated adolescent morbidity and mortality seen in the “The Adolescent Paradox,” but are also predictive of long-term morbidity and mortality since behaviors initiated in adolescence often persist into adulthood. 

Dr. Troxel addresses the policy implications of these findings.  Adolescent sleep problems are an important, known, modifiable risk factor associated with increased risk for mental health problems and risky behavior in adolescents.  While multilevel interventions strategies are needed at the individual, family, and society level  to address insufficient adolescent sleep, Dr. Troxel argues that moving to later school start times is a powerful intervention because it operates at the population level by removing the existing conflict between adolescent sleep biology and early school start times for an entire community.  It is a viable, systemic intervention that is associated with improved adolescent mental health, including lower rates of depression, and reductions in adolescent risky behaviors.

Wendy Troxel, PhD
Wendy Troxel is a Senior Behavioral and Social Scientist at the RAND Corporation and Adjunct Faculty at the University of Pittsburgh. She is also a licensed clinical psychologist and certified behavioral sleep medicine specialist. Dr. Troxel’s research focuses on the interface between sleep, the social environment, and health, and on implications for public policy. Dr. Troxel’s work has been published in international medical and psychological journals and received multiple awards and honors from scientific societies. Her work has garnered widespread media attention from print, TV, and online outlets, including The Wall Street JournalThe New York Times, CBS Sunday MorningGood Morning America, CNN, and The Huffington Post. Her research on sleep was also featured in the National Geographic documentary, “Sleepless in America.” She has been involved in local and national efforts focused on healthy school start times for adolescents, and recently gave a TEDx talk on the impact of school start times on adolescent health and functioning.