Let Teens Sleep – Scientific American
- February 12, 2023
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Teenagers are among the sleep deprived in the US. On average, teens aren’t getting enough sleep, and more importantly, they’re not getting enough quality sleep, researchers say. We could blame cell phones and other light-emitting technologies for keeping kids up at night, but late nights are only part of the equation. Aside from technology, a fairly undeniable factor contributes to this collective fatigue: back-to-school times.
For decades, researchers have accumulated evidence showing that pushing back the first bell of middle and high school would benefit older children’s physical, mental, and emotional health, not to mention their academic achievement. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, along with several medical societies, have advocated later start times. Some school districts, as well as the state of California, have already shown respect for this evidence with new start times.
Yet far too many school districts are reluctant to make the change, whether for logistical, financial, or cultural reasons. That’s unfair to young people. A generation of students is catching up on COVID and we need to prioritize their health and well-being by postponing the start of the school day. Addressing their biological and social needs will produce more resilient adults who can thrive in a world fraught with current and future complexities that we cannot even begin to predict.
Teens need about nine hours of sleep a night — but they’re getting closer to seven. And around puberty, their circadian clocks shift a few hours, meaning they sleep later at night than before and wake up later than earlier in the morning. This shift is reversed in adulthood. The biological nature of this circadian rhythm means sending a teenager to bed earlier does not necessarily mean they fall asleep earlier.
Experts tell us that teens miss both restorative sleep and REM sleep, especially the cycles that usually happen just before waking up. Restful sleep helps the body repair itself after a busy day and can improve immune function and other biological processes. REM sleep solidifies events and learning into memories [see more about sleep cycles in “When Dreams Foreshadow Brain Disease”]. So when a 10th grader who normally goes to bed around 11pm has to get up at 6am for school, that teenager not only loses hours of sleep, but hours of good sleep as well. And even if they sleep in at the weekend, they don’t quite catch up.
Credit: Amanda Montañez; Source: CDC Wonder, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; Data analysis by Tyler Black
These kids tell us they need more sleep. In poll after poll, they say that when school starts later, they don’t feel as tired throughout the day, tend to get to school on time, and need to be pestered less often to get out of bed. They tell us that their use of tobacco and drugs increases as their sleep time decreases, including drugs that might help them stay awake. They tell us that getting an hour less sleep a day makes them feel hopeless and sometimes suicidal. Research has shown that suicide risk among children increases during the school year, and sleep deprivation may be a contributing factor. Other studies show that one hour less sleep per day is associated with weight gain. Researchers have told us that sleepy teens are more prone to car accidents and that even 30 minutes of extra sleep would help alleviate some mental health issues. Even teachers have reported that their students are more engaged and the teachers themselves more rested with later morning start times.
Despite decades of research, thousands of publications, and clear science, schools in just a few states and the District of Columbia have pushed back start times to an average of 8:30 a.m., which researchers say is a trade-off — a better time would be closer to 9 a.m
The road to the delayed start to school is riddled with potholes. Bus schedules need to change. Teacher and admin schedules need to be changed. After-school sports and enrichment programs may need to start later. Parents and carers with more than one child may have to juggle childcare for older children to get the younger ones to their earlier start times. Late start to school can also result in adults with inflexible schedules being late for work.
Experts say our agricultural education model was designed to get teenagers up early and getting them home before dark to tend the farm, but it’s no longer relevant to most modern students. Our cultural views of teenagers as lazy and needing sleep as weakness are pernicious and inaccurate. And our grumbling that if we survived early start times, so can today’s teenagers is callous and dismissive of science.
Access to education is a fundamental right in the United States. But it’s time to stop thinking of back-to-school times as immovable mountains. As more states consider start-time legislation, school district administrators should prioritize it, and school board candidates must add start-times to their platforms. State funding agencies have to overcome hurdles for districts that want to try this. Employers need to be more flexible to help parents adjust to school hours, especially for hourly workers. And the unions that represent teachers and other education workers need to negotiate with teenagers, too.
For decades, we’ve ignored the overwhelming evidence that delayed tee times help teens thrive. let teenagers sleep. Nothing “woke up” about it.