Come September, if the school bell rings for your teenager at 7-something, it’s way too early.
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, middle and high school students should start school no earlier than 8:30 a.m. This is because teenagers need more sleep, and they need to get up later in the morning to perform at their best. Early starting times may accommodate complex bus schedules, but our children pay a price. Schools in our neighborhoods have not fully accommodated this fact of teen life.
According to my daughter Jocelyn Kreiss, a psychiatrist and the mother of a 12-year-old, the daily struggle for teenagers to wake up early is painful for everyone involved. Jocelyn has written about this issue, and I’m happy to share some of her insights. She says of her own household, “At 6 a.m. the first alarm rings, then the second, and the third . . . and it is still undeniably quiet in my son’s room. He is exhausted . . .”
She goes on to explain, “The brain is in an active state of development during adolescence. There is a surge of neuronal connections being formed in the brain’s frontal lobe, which is responsible for decision-making and impulse control. There is also critical development in the limbic system, which governs emotions and risk taking behaviors. It is an exciting time for the adolescent brain, but it is also an extremely vulnerable time; and sleep plays an essential role in sculpting some of these brain developments.”
As she explains it, our teens suffer because there is a conflict between changes in their internal biological clocks and the schedules and demands of school communities.
Both wakefulness and sleep are modulated by a biological clock located in the hypothalamus. This is our circadian rhythm. Melatonin, a hormone secreted by the pineal gland in the brain, influences the sleep cycle by making us feel sleepy.
Starting at the time of puberty onset, we notice a delay in circadian rhythm timing, Jocelyn says. Teens are staying up later at night and starting to sleep later in the morning (when time permits). The production of melatonin peaks at around 11 p.m. for teens.
Melatonin turns off later in the morning, making it difficult for teens to wake up early and feel focused. Asking a teen to wake up for school at 6 a.m. is like asking an adult to wake up at 4 a.m. Luckily, this change in circadian rhythm shifts back around the age of 20.
In some households, getting up for school is a daily struggle. Parents pull off the covers, ring bells, and one woman I know uses a water gun to get her son out of bed in time for his bus pickup. This could all be a lot easier if parents and schools worked together to rearrange the school schedules, giving teenagers the later starting times.
Teens need between 8½ and 9½ hours of sleep per night for optimal academic performance, physical and mental health, and brain development. The effects of sleep deprivation are astounding, studies show. Jocelyn points out that during adolescence, mental health problems increase dramatically. Doctors see depression, attention problems, even suicide. There is a striking correlation between mental health issues and sleep disruption. We know that sleep loss negatively affects mood and emotional regulation in adolescents.
Fatigue-related accidents are another consequence of sleep deprivation. There are 50,000 accidents per year among drivers under age 25. Driving after getting only four or five hours of sleep is much like driving at the legal limit of alcohol consumption. Sleeping for less than four hours per night puts teens at same risk as driving at double the legal limit of alcohol.
There are significant physical health consequences, too. In a recent study in the Journal of Pediatrics, teen sleep deprivation was linked to obesity, hypertension and elevated cholesterol.
So how are teens dealing with chronic sleep deficiency? They crave caffeine and energy drinks, and some use stimulant medication. As many researchers have put it, we’ve created a population of “tired but wired” teens.
The American Academy of Pediatrics said it best when it called sleep insufficiency “one of the most common, important, and potentially remediable health risks in children” — the key word being “remediable.”
Jocelyn suggests that parents advocate for their kids by pushing school districts to create starting times that will maximize their children’s ability to learn. When kids get up at 6 a.m., they may be sitting in the classroom with their eyes open, but they’re not fully awake and ready to learn.
Copyright 2019 Randi Kreiss. Randi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.