With a quick look at the calendar, I imagine this is a sensitive topic for many of you with teenagers. Traditional school schedules seem to be a square peg to the round hole of teen sleep patterns. Teens need more sleep than adults, perhaps 2-3 more hours per night more. Teens typically go to bed late. Sometimes very late. And school often starts around 8am. Teenagers may be just getting into their most consolidated REM sleep around that time, and research studies have shown that depriving a person of REM sleep leads to problems with learning and memory among other things.
Some argue that teens simply use computers, cell phones and TV too much at night. In fact, most of these illuminated screens contain high levels of light in the blue spectrum, and this wavelength seems to most affect our sleep/wake rhythm. Blue light tends to suppress the natural production of the hormone melatonin, an important chemical regulator of sleep. Simply put, light keeps us awake at night. A century or more ago, with the U.S. still a primarily agriculture-based country, those teens may have had more physical labor in their typical day (e.g., farming chores). They had more time outside in natural light, and probably had more darkness at night. The electric light bulb was invented in the late 1800’s, but in 1920 barely 1/3 of all homes were wired for electricity, and cell phones, computers, and big-screen TV’s were still decades away. So is light the only factor keeping teens awake late? And if not, should school start later?
Today’s typical teens are pressed with time demands of school sports/clubs, homework, socializing, part time employment, etc., and there are only so many hours in the day. Additionally, many studies show that sleep patterns change when kids become teens. From puberty to adulthood, the human brain naturally is less awake during the day than it is in the evening, often not shutting down until very late at night. Electronic screens would seem to be fuel to the fire, adding more alertness to an already active late-night brain. For parents fighting this biology, the biggest battles are in the morning.
There is little argument from parents or sleep scientists that teenagers need more sleep and a later wake time. But our modern American society is built around an 8-5 model. Over the years, various efforts have been made to push back school start times, and the momentum seems to be growing more quickly now. Approximately half the states in the country have adopted later start times, and the reports are mostly positive. For those high school districts that have implemented a later start time, absenteeism has declined, grades have improved and falling asleep in class less common. But most efforts to delay start times have failed over the years, primarily due to pushback from community members who fear that a shift to later school hours will be prohibitively expensive and/or disrupt after school sports and other extracurricular schedules, student jobs, daycare arrangement, teacher training, or time for homework. Also, at least one published study on later class schedules for college students showed increased binge drinking and lower GPA’s.
So while society continues the discussion, what are you, the parents, doing at home to try to fit the square peg into the round hole?