Why Crime Affects a Youth’s Academic Performance

Youths went to sleep later on nights when a violent crime occurred near their home, often resulting in fewer total hours of sleep.  (Image: via
Youths went to sleep later on nights when a violent crime occurred near their home, often resulting in fewer total hours of sleep. (Image: via CC0 1.0)

A new study has found that violent crime changes youths’ sleep patterns the night immediately following the crime, and changes patterns of the stress hormone cortisol the following day. Both may then disrupt academic performance in students.

Almost 1.2 million violent crimes — homicide, sexual assault, assault, and robbery — were committed in the United States in 2015, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.

Jennifer A. Heissel, a Ph.D. graduate in human development and sociology at Northwestern University who led the study that appears in the journal Child Development, explained:

The study did so by examining the causal pathways involved with sleep and the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, which regulates the body’s response to stress.

Researchers tracked the sleep and stress hormones of 82 youths (ages 11 to 18) in a large Midwestern city who attended public schools that were racially, ethnically, and socioeconomically diverse.

The students filled out daily diaries over four days, wore activity-tracking watches that measured sleep, and had their saliva tested three times a day to check for cortisol.

Researchers also collected information on all the violent crimes reported to the police in the city during the study, including which youth had a violent crime occur in his or her neighborhood.

For each youth, researchers compared the students’ sleep on the nights following a violent crime to their sleep on nights when there were no violent crimes committed nearby.

They also compared students’ stress hormones (cortisol) on days following a violent crime to their stress hormones on days when there were no violent crimes committed nearby.

Among the findings: Youths went to sleep later on nights when a violent crime occurred near their home, often resulting in fewer total hours of sleep.

In addition, the increase in youths’ cortisol levels the morning after a crime occurred nearby the day before was larger than on mornings following no crime the previous day, a pattern that previous research suggests might reflect the body’s anticipation of more stress the day following a crime.

The changes in sleep and cortisol were largest when the crime committed the previous day was a homicide, moderate for assault and sexual assault, and nonexistent for robbery. Emma Adam, professor of human development and social policy who also conducted the study, suggested:

Provided by: Society for Research in Child Development [Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.]

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