One thing I notice about my friends – my peers in general – can be summed up in the phrase: “I’m, like, so tired.” Some of us need to get up as early as five to catch the bus. My alarm goes off at quarter to six. In schools across the country, early start times are nothing new. However, in the past few years, solid research has suggested we should rethink school start times.
Infants sleep away most of their days – 14 to 16 hours – because their brains need to develop. Similarly, during puberty, teenagers need between nine and ten hours of sleep a night. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, significant changes occur in the cerebral structure during adolescence, mostly while we sleep.
At the same time, it’s surprisingly natural for teenagers to want to stay up late. This may seem paradoxical, but it’s due to an unavoidable shift in the adolescent biological clock. The brain normally produces a hormone called melatonin when it thinks it’s time to go to sleep. Throughout puberty, melatonin secretion occurs later at night as we mature, making teens stay awake later. Researchers at Brown University call this a “phase-delay,” which will reverse itself after puberty.
It’s obvious that teenagers don’t get enough sleep. The National Sleep Foundation conducted a survey this year that found that 58 percent of 15- to 17-year-olds often sleep less than seven hours a night. In 10 California high schools, 4,317 students had an average of 3.1 hours of homework per night, according to a study in the Journal of Experimental Education. With 75 percent of middle/high school students participating in extracurricular activities and 57 percent taking part in non-school-related activities, according to a national survey, how can we be expected to get enough sleep when the average start time in U.S. high schools is 8 o’clock or earlier?
Why should any of this matter? As Cornell University psychologist James B. Maas, PhD, stated, “You can be giving the most stimulating, interesting lectures to sleep-deprived kids early in the morning … when they’re at their sleepiest, and the overwhelming drive to sleep replaces any chance of alertness, cognition, memory, or understanding.” Fifteen years ago, a survey of more than 3,000 high school students found that those who reported getting C’s, D’s, and F’s in school got 25 minutes less sleep per night and went to bed 40 minutes later than students who got A’s and B’s.
The consequences aren’t just academic. In a study of 10,000 16- to 18-year-olds conducted by the University of Bergen and the University of California, teens with symptoms of depression took longer to fall asleep and woke up more frequently than non-depressed teens.
Still not convinced? Drowsiness and fatigue generally cause more than 100,000 traffic accidents per year, and teen drivers are at the wheel in more than half of them. A study observed two high schools in Virginia and found a correlation between earlier start times and more crashes.
Changing school start times will be difficult. It’s only natural for schools to be concerned about the impacts on bus schedules and afterschool activities, but the health benefits are well worth the effort. The Center for Applied Research and Educational Improvement at the University of Minnesota conducted a study on the impact of changing school start times on academic performance, behavior, and safety in urban and suburban schools. Both reported students taking fewer trips to the nurse, eating breakfast more often, and completing most of their homework during school (because they were alert enough to). Later start times produced a calmer atmosphere in the hallways and cafeterias, and fewer students saw school counselors to discuss academic or personal stress.
We’re at a point in our lives where sleep is necessary for our successful development and progression. Changing school start times will vastly improve the quality of our education because students will be healthier and more eager to learn. If we teenagers do our part – get to bed on time – will the school boards do theirs? ’Cause we’re, like, so tired.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.