Gay, lesbian and bisexual youths are at far greater risk of sleep problems than their straight counterparts, according to a new study published in the journal LGBT Health.
Researchers analyzed data on more than 8,500 young people ages 10 to 14, a critical time for mental and physical development. They found that 35.1% of those who identified as gay, lesbian or bisexual reported trouble falling or staying asleep in the previous two weeks, compared to 13.5% of straight-identifying adolescents.
In addition, 30.8% of questioning youths — those who answered “maybe” to being gay, lesbian or bisexual — reported problems with getting a full night’s rest.
“Sleep is incredibly important for a teenager’s health,” said lead author Jason M. Nagata, a professor of pediatrics at the University of California, San Francisco. “There’s growth spurts and hormonal changes that help you develop normally.”
Most kids don't get quality sleep to begin with, Nagata said, but LGBTQ youths can face bullying and discrimination at school or conflicts at home that contribute to mental health issues.
Those problems can keep them from falling or staying asleep.
“It’s likely that one feeds off the other — poor sleep worsening mental health issues and mental health issues worsening sleep,” said Dr. Matthew Hirschtritt, a psychiatrist and researcher with Kaiser Permanente who did not work on the study.
Adolescents who get insufficient sleep may also have difficulty completing schoolwork and facing other academic challenges, Hirschtritt said, “which can exacerbate some of the school-based problems that LGBT youth already face.”
Nagata’s team used data from 2018 to 2020 from the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development Study, which included questions for both the subjects and their parents about their sleep habits.
Existing research already points to increased sleep issues among sexual minorities, but Nagata said he believes this is the first time gay, lesbian and bisexual youths have been the focus.
“This is such a volatile period, both physically and mentally,” he said. “Teens are particularly vulnerable to the opinions of their peers, so it's a high-risk group for mental health problems and suicide.”
Further research could illuminate other factors fueling sleep disorders among queer youths, he said.
“LGB kids experience more substance use than their peers, for example, which can alter sleep cycles and impair sleep,” he said.
Overstimulation and stress can also affect sleep. Separate research Nagata has worked on indicates gay youths use screens an average of nearly four hours a day more than straight kids.
He recommends teenagers establish consistent sleep schedules, make sure their sleeping environments are comfortable and limit their exposure to electronic devices and social media before bed.
Co-author Kyle T. Ganson, a professor at the University of Toronto’s Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work, said parents can also help by being actively involved in their children’s lives and supportive of their identities and any feelings they may be exploring.
“Adolescent development is a challenging time for many given the social pressures and physical, psychological and emotional changes that occur,” Ganson said in a statement. “Understanding this process and being present to support it is crucial for positive health outcomes.”