When Amelia thinks about her freshman year two years ago, she remembers always being tardy to her 8 a.m. first period class. Encinal Junior Senior High School in Alameda is across town from her home.
“It was so hard to wake up in the morning,” she said. “I had to bike to school and I live on the other side of the island.”
Like other teens, mornings are a struggle because she had several hours of homework and extracurriculars the night before, but research shows that’s not the entire story. High schoolers are going to sleep later and waking up early to make it on time for first period classes. Starting school at 8 a.m. was early for Amelia, but some high schools begin at 7:30 a.m. According to psychotherapists Heather Turgeon and Julie Wright in their book “Generation Sleepless,” today’s teens are sleepier than ever and these earlier school start times are interfering with their body’s circadian rhythm.
“One of the things that happens somewhere around age 12 is that their brain clock becomes set to a later pace,” said Turgeon, which puts a teen about two hours behind the sleep schedule of a young child or adult. “That means they want to go to sleep later and they want to wake up later,” she said.
It may seem excessive, but teens are supposed to sleep nine to ten hours a night. “We consider adequate sleep – the very lowest amount – to be about eight hours,” said Wright. Almost 70% of U.S. high school students don’t get the minimum amount of sleep they need each night. Between homework, after school activities and early school start times, the average high schooler usually gets about 6.5 hours of sleep. And missing out on just a couple hours of rest each night has negative consequences for developing teenage brains.
When a teen is tired, the amygdala – which is the part of the brain that responds to danger – becomes more active. And parts of the brain that are in charge of judgment become less active. Sleep issues are commonly associated with anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder and ADHD. “We see teens with issues like really critical mental health issues and accidents and suicidality – things that parents really worry about – and getting enough sleep addresses those issues.”
In an effort to curb teens’ sleep deprivation, California Gov. Gavin Newsom passed a first-of-its-kind law in 2019 prohibiting high schools from starting before 8:30 a.m. Other states such as New Jersey, New York and Tennessee are looking to follow California’s lead. Even with research showing that letting students sleep in contributes to better academic performance, lower truancy rates and improved mental health, there has been push back from parents and school districts about delaying the start of the school day.
One of the obstacles to earlier school start times is long-held beliefs about teens and school. So I asked Turgeon and Wright to clear up some common claims. Their responses have been edited for clarity.
CLAIM: We don’t need late school starts because teenagers can just sleep in on the weekends.
TURGEON: On Saturday or Sunday, a teenager might sleep for 10 hours. There is such a thing as rebound sleep, which is what happens when you finally sleep well and then you’re like, “Oh my God, I feel so much better.” But, you can’t go back in time and erase the toll that happened to your body during the week. Because of the chronic sleep loss that you had from Monday to Friday, your body and your brain were still under stress. Toxins were building up in the brain. All those effects throughout the week do not go away.
CLAIM: If school start times are later, teens will just stay up later on their phone or play video games.
WRIGHT: The research in areas where schools have moved to a later start time shows that the kids are going to bed at about the same time, so they are getting more sleep overall.
We also want to help families find a way to create some structure around technology and not be afraid of their kids being unhappy about it. It all depends on where parents are in the process, how old their kids are and how much independence they’ve given their child. We really recommend holding on to bedtimes and sleep routines longer than most modern parents seem to be doing. Don’t be afraid that your child won’t love you anymore if you say that the devices have to be parked at 9 p.m. and bedtime is at 10 p.m.
We are creatures of habit and technology is very addictive, so changing the way that evenings unfold and changing our habits is not easy. It takes time and takes a lot of attention and takes parents really being involved and creating some activities to do once those devices are put away.
I do hear a lot of parents are a little bit afraid of their kids, and they’re also often in their own room on their own devices. We can control technology use rather than having it control us; and our kids need to see that we can do that and that we’re not afraid of helping them do that.
CLAIM: Later school start times will affect bus schedules and after school activities such as sports.
TURGEON: When schools are making the change, there’s a lot of confusion about it or mixed feelings and concerns on the part of parents about sports, bussing, logistics and traffic. The typical result has been that it all works out and everyone’s happier.
In some cases, bus routes need to be planned a little differently. For sports teams in the same league or district, schools can make the change together and coordinate practices and games. I think it’s just really important to know that all those concerns are logistical concerns. And so which do we weigh more? Do we weigh logistics and grown up concerns and those things that are adult centered or do we want to weigh the mental health of teenagers? And I think if you put it that way to parents, there’s no question what the answer should be.
What Students Have to Say After Getting a Later Start Time
Encinal Junior Senior High School moved their start time from 8 a.m. to 8:30 a.m the year students returned to school buildings after distance learning. Thirty extra minutes might not seem like much, but some teens had more time to eat breakfast, which they would often skip when they had to be at school earlier.
Later start times helped teens who have bigger roles in their households, such as helping younger siblings get ready for school.
“I wake up around 6:30 a.m. or 6:45 a.m. because my little brother comes over and he has to get dropped off at school. I have to get him ready and make his lunch,” Encinal High School junior Kavanti told me.
On top of that, they play sports with demanding practice schedules and after school games. “When I come home from practice, it’s already night,” said Kameron, a senior at Encinal High School. He said he usually falls asleep around 11 p.m. or 12 a.m.
Teenage students will be the first to admit that phones steal away precious hours of sleep. Texting friends and scrolling through social media tempts many teens away from counting sheep. “My dad would come to my room and be like, ‘Get off your phone,’” said Kavanti. “Then I go back right after he leaves. I think that is why I go to sleep so late.”
But high schools that have pushed back their start times have already seen positive results like a decrease in teen car crashes, tardiness and depression symptoms. Teenagers’ health hangs in the balance and students’ ability to hit their snooze button may be the tipping point.
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