Adolescence is a challenging time, not only for teens but also for their families. NICHD research aims to protect the health and welfare of adolescents during this important and understudied transition to adulthood.
NICHD has long-supported research to help improve the safety of teen drivers, who are at higher risk for crashes compared to adult drivers. In the United States, graduated licensing systems help new drivers gain skills under lower risk conditions. These systems typically require substantial supervised practice driving during the learner’s permit stage, before a provisional license, and then an unrestricted license is granted. In one study, NICHD researchers analyzed how practice driving sessions may influence later driving, with the goal of pinpointing particularly useful elements of the learner period. They found that youth who engaged in regular, more frequent practice sessions during the learner period had a 39% lower crash risk in the first year after receiving their permanent licenses, compared to youth who practiced less frequently. The findings suggest that early, frequent driving practice lowers crash risk among teen drivers. If confirmed, the research could lead to revisions in state driver licensing requirements to improve safety.
NICHD-funded research also seeks to optimize healthy sleep habits for adolescents. One study found that later school start times may reduce sleep deficits for high school students. The researchers found that students who began classes roughly one hour later than students at neighboring schools slept an average of 43 minutes more per night. The later morning start times likely accommodated the teens’ natural sleep period, which begins about two hours later than that of younger children. The authors concluded that delaying school start times could improve sleep deficiency among adolescents. The authors are also curious to find out if benefits extend to other areas of adolescent life, including driving safety, academic performance, mental health, school attendance, and obesity.
Another NICHD-supported study provided insights into the decision-making processes of adolescents and may be useful for developing interventions to encourage positive risk taking. The researchers reported that teens who take positive risks, such as enrolling in a challenging course or initiating a new friendship, tend to be more involved in school and less likely to act impulsively, compared to those who take negative risks like drinking alcohol or stealing. Interestingly, positive and negative risk takers in the study scored high in measures of sensation-seeking behavior—the desire to seek new, different, and exciting situations. The findings have implications for finding positive ways to channel teens’ natural tendency to take risks.
NICHD research also seeks to better understand puberty. One study examined how the timing of puberty has long-term effects beyond adolescence. The study included a representative sample of more than 14,000 youth across the United States. The researchers found generally that early puberty was linked to worse outcomes in a selection of health measures and behaviors, but the study team also found sex-specific differences. For example, early puberty was linked to higher body mass index scores for girls only, and later puberty timing was linked to both positive behaviors (e.g., more sleep) and negative behaviors (e.g., more screen time) among boys. The authors wrote that accounting for these differences allows for more careful, evidence-based recommendations for adolescent health promotion.