Newfound Causes of Child Crime – Sleep Deprivation & Low Self-Control

Despite the great complexity and diversity in establishing the causes of juvenile delinquency, child crime cases are found to have many factors in common. New juvenile delinquency research suggests that kids getting poor sleep may be more likely to commit crimes and engage in violent behavior because of a lack of sleep promoting poor self-control.

Previous research indicates that teens who do not get adequate, quality sleep are at an increased risk for involvement in various forms of delinquency and risk-taking behaviors.

Meanwhile in other research, Baumeister’s strength model of self-control indicates that self-control is a finite resource that is replenished by rest. Think of self-control like a muscle that gets tired out from being used, needing a good night’s sleep to replenish your power of self-control.

A link between sleep and self-control?

Researchers from Florida International University and The University of Texas aimed to bridge the gap between the two lines of research by testing whether adolescents who fail to get adequate, restful sleep on a consistent basis may have poorer self-control and therefore be more likely to engage in delinquent behavior.

To test their theory, the researchers analyzed data from 1,364 families, including their child’s careworkers and teachers, from when the child was a month old all the way until 15 years of age.

At 15 years of age, the children from these families level of sleep deprivation, self-control and involvement in delinquent behaviors was assessed. Specifically, they were asked how often they used different substances (alcohol, tobacco and marijuana), or partook in non-violent juvenile crime such as trespassing, vandalism, and theft, and violent behaviors such as threatening to beat someone up or attacking someone with a weapon.

The researchers aimed to hone in on the influence of sleep-deprivation on juvenile delinquency as specifically as possible by controlling for other variables that may promote criminal behaviors, including depressive symptoms, ineffective parenting styles, staying in a ‘bad neighborhood’ and the amount of time spent with friends unsupervised by an adult.

The analysis revealed that sleep deprivation predicts greater delinquency, and identified a relatively strong relationship between sleep deprivation and low self-control in the children studied where:

…the observed relationship between sleep deprivation and delinquency was indirect and it operated through low self-control.

In research and real-life, teens are often considered to either have self-control, or not, as if it’s solely a part of their personality, influenced predominantly by genetics and their upbringing.

The research results suggest that self-control is not about haves or have nots. Instead, a teenager’s self-control is more malleable in response to decisions that families and teens make regarding health and lifestyle. And importantly, that healthy practices, like developing a good sleep schedule, could lower risk of child crime and delinquent behavior.

The mechanisms behind the link

Although the current research established a connection, researchers were only able to speculate about the neurological and psychological processes behind the relationship based on other research.

Perhaps prolonged sleep deprivation lowers patience, where adolescents simply care less about resisting temptations and restraining inhibitions — known as losing interest in self-control.

Or it may be that prolonged sleep deprivation causes changes in the brain, perhaps imparing prefrontal cortex functioning, that thereby lower childrens’capacity for self-control at the neurological level.

Now the connection between self-control, sleep and juvenile delinquency has been made future research can be more fruitfully directed to answering these questions and better establish causality.


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Image via StartupStockPhotos / Pixabay.

Carla Clark, PhD

Carla Clark, PhD, is BrainBlogger's Lead Editor and Psychology and Psychiatry Section Editor. A scientific consultant, writer, and researcher in a variety of fields including psychology and neuropsychology, as well as biotechnology, molecular biology, and biophysical chemistry, you can follow her on Facebook or Twitter @GeekReports
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