A report released by the CDC suggests that when a teenager has difficulty waking up for school, rolls over and mumbles that he or she needs more sleep, that teen is probably telling the truth.
Teenagers, says the government study, need at least eight hours of sleep every night, but most kids do not get that much. One of the problems, according to researchers, is that most middle and high school students start their school day too early, so getting the correct amount of sleep is difficult, writes Kimberly Leonard of US News and World Report.
The team suggests that a start time of 8:30 a.m. or before does not allow teens to log in enough ZZZ’s. In five out of six middle and high schools nationwide, the starting bell rings even earlier – nearer to 8:03 a.m.
“Early school start times are preventing many adolescents from getting the sleep they need,” Anne Wheaton, an author of the report and an epidemiologist in the CDC’s Division of Population Health, said in a statement.
The CDC points out that two out of three students in high school get fewer than eight hours of shut-eye on school nights, which is a statistic that has not wavered since 2007. Unfortunately, teens who do not get enough sleep are more likely not to exercise and to be involved in harmful behaviors such as using drugs, alcohol, and tobacco. Other negative outcomes can include gaining weight, depression, and poor academic performance.
Data from the 2011-2012 Schools and Staffing Survey of almost 40,000 public school students was reviewed by the CDC and Department of Education in order to establish school start-time results.
School start times are decided at the district or school level. When attempting to establish average start times across the country, the report found large variations. In Louisiana, schools on average started at 7:40 a.m., while in Alaska beginning times for schools was on average 8:33 a.m. There were no schools in Hawaii, Mississippi, or Wyoming that started at 8:30 a.m. or later, but more than 75% of schools in Alaska and North Dakota started at 8:30 a.m. or later.
The government has included sleep patterns for teens as a topic in the Healthy People 2020 objectives, along with vaccination goals and reducing suicides, unintended pregnancies, and fatal automobile accidents. By 2020, officials are hoping to see a greater number of teenagers getting eight or more hours of sleep each night.
Last year, the American Academy of Pediatrics attempted to persuade middle schools and high schools to begin school days no earlier than 8:30 a.m. to allow students to get the 8.5 to 9.5 recommended hours of sleep. The academy states that teens are biologically programmed to stay up later than adults at night, reports Liz Szabo of USA Today. Parents have known this as long as they have had children, and some have urged schools to start later because their kids have trouble getting to school any earlier than 8:30 a.m. Assuming that kids can learn anything at that hour anyway is probably incorrect, according to the researchers.
“It makes absolutely no sense,” said physician M. Safwan Badr, a past president of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine. “You’re asking kids to learn math at a time their brains are not even awake.”
One of the main reasons schools have been reluctant to delay starting times is because of scheduling after-school sporting events, which can require teams to use buses to travel to other parts of their districts. There are also the matters of after-school activities other than sports, the cost of school buses, and traffic concerns. Changing times for high school students could mean that elementary kids would travel to school in the dark during winter months and interfere with after-school jobs for teens.
“It’s a logistical nightmare,” said Daniel Domenech, executive director of AASA, the School Superintendents Association.
The American Academy of Pediatrics explains that teenagers experience a change in the release of melatonin, a sleep hormone that helps regulate the body’s day and night rhythms. For teens, it is secreted later in the day and surges at night, so adolescents do not become sleepy until 11 p.m, reports Akron Beacon Journal’s Deena Yellin.
That leads to another dangerous consequence of sleep deprivation for high school students. Dr. Cora Breuner, a pediatrician at Seattle Children’s Hospital and a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ Committee on Adolescence, says:
“We determined that there are a lot of car accidents that happen on the way to school when school starts early,” she said. In districts with later start times, “the high-risk behaviors are decreased, there are fewer accidents and less depression among kids. … It’s amazing to see what difference an hour can make in a kid’s brain.”