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.
Later start times also help students who have to take public transportation. Research has shown that students who have to travel further for school, especially using public transportation, get less sleep than their peers who live closer and have more private transportation options.
Even on the slightly later schedule, students are just barely reaching the recommended sleep minimum of eight hours per night. Students may aspire to get to bed earlier, but then students have after school obligations. Students report having around three hours of homework each night.
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.”