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Adolescence is such a weird period in everybody’s life, and most of us, simply want to go through this period as fast as possible and become an adult. There are so many changes in a child’s life during this time, from hormones going wild, and getting more responsibilities, to changes in social dynamics, and finally gaining more freedom. Teens become more independent through the choice of after school activities, driving, and getting a part-time job to learn about fiscal responsibility. They also learn about critical thinking and peer pressure, and this period is essential for the further development of a child.
Sleeping well is essential for adolescents, as they are still growing and developing, and they should preferably get 9 hours each night. Unfortunately, with a lot of responsibilities and different activities, teens often choose to sacrifice sleep to get everything else done. Missing necessary rest on a daily basis leads to sleep deprivation that is just terrible for their health. It results in a weakened immune system, impaired memory, decreased learning ability and attention which ultimately leads to worse academic performance, harder time controlling emotions, and increased risk of mental disorders, such as anxiety and depression. To make things even worse, these mental disorders also have an additional impact on sleep, which leads to even shorter rest time per night. Because of all of this, adolescents need to pay special attention to their sleep habits, and researchers think that the best way to do this is to shift school starts a little later in the morning.
Sleep Deprivation and Adolescence
As much as 60% of teens report feeling fatigued during the day, and 15% have even fallen asleep during school. A growing body of evidence tells us that the reason for that is the early morning start, which is something we can change. Academic researchers agree that moving the school start to 8.30 am or later can bring many benefits. Unfortunately, 83% of middle and 93% of high schools start before 8.30 am.
Because of work, school, extracurricular activities, and other responsibilities, 90% of teenagers don’t get the recommended 9 hours of sleep — no wonder why they feel so exhausted. They also further compromise their rest by using electronics late at night. Screens emit blue light that suppresses the production of melatonin, a hormone that is essential for sleep, and basically tells our brain that it’s time to be active. Because of that, it is harder to fall asleep, and there is a higher risk of sleep deprivation.
Sleep deprivation is no joke, as it affects many aspects of our lives, including our cognitive performance. When we lack sleep, our ability to concentrate is impaired, it is harder to obtain and retain new information, and our problem-solving skills are way worse. All of these are much needed for excellent academic performance.
Our emotional well-being is affected by lack of sleep as well. Sleep deprived people are more likely to act irrational, make poor judgments, and have a harder time regulating their mood and temper. Mix that in with a combination of hormones going wild in teenagers, and the effects only get worse. It may cause them to have a hard time coping with the stresses of everyday life and school, and they might turn to alcohol, drugs, and nicotine abuse. Poor decision making can also make them think that it’s okay to drive when they are under the influence of alcohol, or when they are feeling too tired. Car accidents are the number one death cause among teenagers.
Beside affecting us mentally and emotionally, sleep deprivation also has physical consequences. When we don’t get enough sleep, our body’s production of ghrelin and leptin, two hormones responsible for our appetite, is affected. That makes us crave more sugary and fatty foods, and that brings us one step closer to weight gain and obesity. Chronic lack of sleep also increases our chances of type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, even certain types of cancer.
Why Don’t They Go to Bed Earlier?
A logical step if you are constantly sleep deprived is to go to bed earlier. Unfortunately, it is not that easy. Teenagers need 9 hours of sleep, compared to 7 to 9 that is recommended for adults. Also, right around the adolescence, there is a natural shift in a body’s circadian rhythms. The production of melatonin starts later in the night compared to childhood, and it also stops later in the morning. Because of that, teenagers tend to go to sleep later and to sleep longer in the morning. This shift is also observed in other animal species during adolescence, so it is entirely normal behavior. Unfortunately, early school start makes them miss the needed sleep, and they just can’t go to bed earlier.
School dictates everything. Teens need to find time to squeeze in other extracurricular activities, jobs, socializing with friends, family obligations, hobbies, and other basic needs like eating and bathing. They also need to contribute to the household by doing chores, and even though they spend a big part of the day at school, they still have homework and extra assignments to do back at home. This brings a lot of stress, and they often willingly choose to compromise their sleep, so that they can have time for all these activities.
To complicate things even more, most teens are not aware of good sleep hygiene, and they often take part in behaviors that are damaging their sleep. The basics of sleeping well are:
- Stick to a regular schedule by going to sleep and waking up at the same time every day, even on weekends.
- Get the right amount of sleep, which is 7 to 9 for adults, 9 for teenagers, and even more for children. Toddlers sleep for 16 hours a day.
- Create a relaxing bedtime routine that helps you unwind before bedtime.
- Sleep in a cool, quiet, dark bedroom, free of any distractions.
- Do not use electronics at least 30 minutes before bed.
- Avoid drinking caffeine, alcohol, nicotine, and eating large meals before bed.
If you have ever come in contact with a teenager, you know that these are the directions they simply don’t follow. They stay up late playing games, watching videos on Youtube, and texting with their friends. Prolonged exposure to bright screens trick their brains into thinking that it is daytime, so it makes it harder to fall asleep when they decide to lay down. They also drink a lot of energy drinks to keep up with responsibilities. Energy drinks and sodas are full of caffeine, and they are proven to disrupt sleep, especially if taken too close to bedtime.
Benefits of Later School Start Times
Current research shows that it can be very beneficial to move the school start time to 8.30 am or later. Generally, students spend that extra time sleeping, and it is significant for their well-being. Some of the benefits are:
- Longer sleep duration
- Increased daytime alertness
- Fewer chances of falling asleep in the class
- Better attendance due to fewer sick days and fatigue
- Decreased risk of depression and anxiety
- Fewer car accidents due to drowsy driving
- Better academic performance (better scores on tests including GPA and college admission test scores)
- Faster reaction times
- Fewer disciplinary actions
- Better relationship with family and friends
- Mood improvement
Unfortunately, even with all of these proven benefits, parents don’t seem to understand the needs of their children. Only around 50% of parents are in favor of moving school start times.
Scientific Research Supporting Later School Starts
One study from 2018 looked at 375 students in Singapore, and how delayed sleep start affected them. Academic success is extremely important in Eastern Asian countries, so researchers were interested in how socially acceptable this delay would be, and how the students would behave. The school agreed to move the start 45 minutes later to determine short and long-term impact on students.
The findings showed that after one month, even though students went to sleep a little later, on average they spent 23.2 minutes more asleep. Nine months later, the effects were a bit smaller, but there was still a 10 minutes increase in sleeping time. Students also reported lower levels of daytime sleepiness and higher levels of emotional well-being at both instances.
The majority of students (89.1%), parents (75.6%), and teachers (67.6%) agreed that the later start times were better for students. It means that it is feasible to delay the school start, even in the culture that often chooses to sacrifice sleep to study more and get better academic performance.
A 2017 study was conducted to see how the delayed start times later than 8.30 am would affect student attendance and graduation rates. They monitored over 30,000 students from 29 different high schools located across seven different states. Interestingly, both the attendance and graduation rates significantly improved, giving the more reason for delaying school starts.
A comprehensive assessment of school starting times in Canada was done in 2016. Researchers wanted to see how this parameter correlated with the quantity of sleep the students were getting. They collected data from 362 schools in Canada, and they surveyed nearly 30,000 students aged 10 to 18. They found out that the average starting time was 8.43 am. And even though students slept for over 8 and a half hours on average on a school night, 60% still felt fatigued in the morning. For every 10 minute delay in starting time, students got 3.2 more minutes of sleep; they were 1.6% more likely to get sufficient sleep, and also 2.1% less likely to feel tired in the morning. As the students who were attending school later reported to get more sleep and feel well-rested in the morning, it just builds a larger case to why we should just quit torturing our kids with early morning wake-ups.
A study done in 2014 by the University of Minnesota, followed over 9,000 students from 8 different public schools. Their goal was to see how the later start time correlated academic performance, overall health, and well-being of students.
The results were not surprising, as the later start times enabled 60% of students to get at least 8 hours of sleep, which is a bare minimum for teenagers. Start of 8.35 am or later meant significantly improved academic performance. Students had higher grades in core subjects such as maths, science, English and social studies. They also performed better on state and national tests. Students’ attendance improved, as there are less sick days because of the better sleep quality, while their daytime fatigue decreased. Students who slept less than 8 hours per night, reported significantly higher symptoms of depression, anxiety, caffeine and substance use. Their grades and overall performance was also much lower. Another key finding is that when a school changed starting time from 7.35 to 8.55 am; there was a massive 70% decrease in teenage car crashes. Sleep-deprived kids were also observed to be more sedentary and prone to junk food, as exercise, eating healthy and sleeping well are all tied together.
A study of nearly 10,000 students from 2008 showed consistent results. Researchers analyzed the effects of one-hour delay on students and car crash accidents. They found out that the total sleep time of students increased by 12 to 36 minutes depending on the grade. The percentage of students getting 8 or more hours of rest risen from 37.5% to 50%, as did the number of kids having at least 9 hours (6.3% to 10.8%). Car crash rates were lower by 16.5%.
Is Changing School Start Times Too Complicated?
Getting sufficient sleep, better academic performance, being well-rested during the day, mood improvement, fewer signs of mental health disorders, lower car crash rates, there are just too many benefits to moving delaying school starts. But why aren’t we doing it?
The main concern that the officials have for this is the cost. They said it would just take too much money, with the most significant chunk going to the adaptation of bus schedules. Current schedules are fitted to high and elementary school needs, so changing this would probably mean that there would need to employ more drivers and rent more buses, which cost a lot. However, if it benefits our children so much, is it really important?
Few researchers have gone as far as predicting that we would economically have a lot of benefits from school delay. There would be far fewer car crashes, and the improved academic performance and better education would mean more economic gain. Not to mention that obesity, suicide, mental disorders, and other health issue rates would drop, which is all beneficial to the economy as well. Let’s cut out all the excuses and do what’s right for our children according to scientific research, and that is delaying school start to 8.30 am or later.
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Dusan is a biologist, a science enthusiast and a huge nature lover. He loves to keep up to date with all the new research and write accurate science-based articles. When he’s not writing or reading, you can find him in the kitchen, trying out new delicious recipes; out in the wild, enjoying the nature or sleeping in his bed.