Sleep Moderates Impulsivity and Risky Media Use in Kids

Ensuring that children get enough sleep during early adolescence may help deter them from viewing mature-rated media content, especially if they show impulsive tendencies, a new study shows.

The study of 9- to 13-year-olds found that higher impulsivity was predictive of more R-rated movie watching, and shorter sleep duration was predictive for more mature video gaming and R-rated movie watching.

Sleep loss may be a “modifiable” target for prevention and intervention efforts, especially in adolescents with impulsivity who are at higher risk for using mature-rated media, lead author Linhao Zhang, doctoral student in the Department of Human Development and Family Science at the University of Georgia in Athens, told Medscape Medical News.

What’s “concerning,” said Zhang, is that only 19% of the young adolescents in the study slept more than 8 hours nightly on average.

The American Academy of Sleep Medicine (AASM) recommends that children aged 6-12 years get 9-12 hours of sleep on a regular basis; teens should sleep 8-10 hours on a regular basis.

The findings were presented at SLEEP 2023, the 37th annual meeting of the Associated Professional Sleep Societies.

Emotional Regulation

Research shows children exposed to mature-rated media display decreased empathy and aggressive behaviors later in life, which is a “major public health concern,” Zhang said.

Some youth who exhibit impulsive traits will engage in risky media activities. Shorter sleep duration is associated with decreased emotional regulation and attention span. Yet, few studies have examined whether sleep duration moderates the association between impulsivity and risky media use, she explained.

To investigate, the researchers analyzed 3-year longitudinal data on 2757 adolescents aged 9-13 years (51% boys, 60% White) from the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development (ABCD) study.

As part of the study, they wore a Fitbit watch for at least 7 days at the 2-year follow-up to provide an objective estimate of sleep duration. They completed a validated questionnaire about impulsivity at 2 years and were asked about R-rated movie watching and mature video gaming at both the 2-year and 3-year follow-up.

At the 2-year and 3-year assessment, 35% and 42% of these young adolescents, respectively, played mature-rated video games; and 38% and 49%, respectively, watched R-rated movies.

Higher levels of impulsivity were predictive for more R-rated movie watching 1 year later (P < .001), Zhang reported.

In addition, after controlling for bedtime screen use, parental monitoring and demographic covariates, shorter sleep duration was predictive for more mature video gaming (P = .006) and R-rated movie watching (P < .001) 1 year later.

Sleep duration moderated the association between impulsivity and R-rated movie watching (P = .03). Among youth with high impulsivity, shorter sleep duration was associated with an increased risk for R-rated movie watching.

Sleep Affects Behavior

Weighing in on the study, journalist and author Lisa Lewis, MS, based in Southern California, said that the study “tracks with research on the many ways that not getting enough sleep affects adolescent behavior, including impulsivity.”

“Tweens and teens are already predisposed to impulsivity because of the brain development taking place over the course of adolescence, and being sleep deprived dampens their impulse control even further,” Lewis told Medscape Medical News.

Lewis, a parent of two teenagers and the author of The Sleep-Deprived Teen (Mango Publishing), said that the results also “underscore the importance of parental involvement: both for providing oversight of their media use, and helping ensure that kids this age get the 9-11 hours of nightly sleep they need.”

Also weighing in, Michael Breus, PhD, clinical psychologist and founder of, said that the study is “very interesting” and has “scientific rigor” leading him to think that the “conclusions are accurate, and appear well founded.”

Breus said he’d like to know if the kids in the study were ever assessed for attention-deficit disorder or attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder.

“We know that these kids often do not sleep well, and this seems like a perfect study to see this type of diagnosis also play an important role. It might however be difficult to insert that variable, but it could be used in a follow up study and possibly yield even more interesting results,” Breus added.

Support for the study was provided by the National Institutes of Health. Zhang, Lewis and Breus have no disclosures.

SLEEP 2022: the 37th Annual Meeting of the Associated Professional Sleep Societies. Presented June 6, 2023. Abstract 0214

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