Later start to school day would benefit teenagers, research shows

One extra hour of sleep a day could improve attendance and lower school dropout rates, and even reduce car crashes among adolescents

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 26 August, 2014, 11:37pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 27 August, 2014, 12:47am


If you thought trying to get a sleepy teenager out of bed in time for school each morning was your own private struggle, you thought wrong.

The American Academy of Paediatrics declared the chronic sleepiness of teenagers a public health issue in a policy statement on Monday. And to help fix the problem, the organisation called for US middle and high schools to push back their start times 30 minutes to an hour to allow students to get more rest.

"A substantial body of research has now demonstrated that delaying school start times is an effective countermeasure to chronic sleep loss," the organisation said. "The American Academy of Paediatrics strongly supports the efforts of school districts to optimise sleep in students."

Sleep deprivation in teenagers is widespread. Eighty-seven per cent of high school students in the US are getting less than the recommended 8.5 to 9.5 hours of sleep, and final-year high school students get less than seven hours of sleep a night, on average, the AAP says.

In addition, 28 per cent of high school pupils report falling asleep at school at least once a week, while one in five say they fall asleep doing homework with similar frequency.

The exhaustion has serious consequences. The AAP reports that the average teenager in the US regularly experiences levels of sleepiness similar to people with sleep disorders such as narcolepsy. Adolescents are also at higher risk for car accidents resulting from drowsy driving. And, as many of us know from personal experience, lack of sleep affects mood, attention, memory and behaviour control.

So can't they just go to bed earlier? The answer is: not really. Studies suggest that at the onset of adolescence, there is a delay in when the body starts to secrete melatonin, a hormone that tells the body it's time to go to sleep. Researchers have also found that it takes the adolescent brain longer to wind down after 14.5 to 18.5 hours awake than it does for people in other stages of life.

"This research indicates that the average teenager in today's society has difficulty falling asleep before 11pm and is best suited to wake up at 8am or later," the AAP statement says.

In the 2011-12 school year, 43 per cent of American public high schools started before 8am.

"When high school classes begin early in the morning, we ask teens to shine when their biological clock tells them to sleep," said Timothy Morgenthaler, president of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine.

Studies have shown that when school starts later, it can help students get an additional hour of sleep per night, improve attendance rates, lower dropout rates, and even reduce the number of car crashes among adolescent drivers.

Whether a later start time improves academic performance is still up in the air.