Back-to-School Special: The Importance of Adolescent Sleep

BlogAug 31 2015

After a restful summer, it’s time for students to head back to school. Get used to hearing the echo of snooze alarms before the sun rises, and seeing teens waiting for busses in the darkness of the early morning. There’s a reason why adolescents need to be dragged out of bed in the morning, are all too often dozing off during first-period, and sleep unreasonably late on weekends.

Research shows that the average adolescent needs eight-and-a-half to nine-and-a-half hours of sleep each night. Estimates on adolescent sleep vary; the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the National Sleep Foundation report that less than a third of high school students get eight hours per night on school nights. When the 2013 Youth Risk Behavior Survey asked teens whether they felt they got enough sleep, more than two thirds reported getting insufficient sleep. This sleep deprivation during the week causes teens to compensate on the weekends. However, a study published in Child Development reports that sleeping late on weekends can further compromise the sleep cycle by shifting teens’ internal “clocks.” This makes it harder to fall asleep Sunday night and wake up early for school Monday morning.

Getting good sleep is imperative for good health. There are many negative consequences for teens who are always tired. Insufficient sleep in adolescence increases risks for obesity, Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease. Other common consequences of sleep deprivation are an increase in risk-taking behaviors, depression, and car accidents – often caused by drowsy driving. In order to combat sleepiness, some teens use caffeinated drinks or prescription stimulants. This early dependence on stimulants can increase the risk of substance use later in adolescence and early adulthood.

The consequences of sleep deprivation extend well beyond health problems. Chronic sleepiness in teens interferes with gaining important developmental skills such as decision-making, judgment, and impulse and behavior control.  Studies show linkages between decreased sleep and lower academic achievement in middle and high school students. Similarly, insufficient sleep is associated with higher rates of absenteeism, tardiness, and a decreased motivation to learn.

Many components of busy teenagers’ lives contribute to the trend of chronic sleep deprivation. These include today’s ever-growing slew of electronic distractions (keeping many awake into the night), over-commitment to extracurricular activities, and academic pressures. Additionally, teens living in urban areas and low-income households often experience minimized sleep due to excessive noise, safety concerns, overcrowding in the home, and job and family responsibilities. However, many organizations and policymakers point to one key contributor to teens’ sleep deprivation – early school start times.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends 8:30 a.m. as the ideal middle and high school start time. Yet, a recent CDC study found that the average school start time in the U.S. is 8:03 a.m. Forty-two states reported that 75 to 100 percent of their public schools start before 8:30 a.m.

How exactly are early school start times negatively impacting adolescent sleep patterns? Simply put, early school start times interrupt adolescents’ circadian rhythms. During puberty, teens experience a natural shift in their sleep cycles, leading to later sleep and wake times of about two hours. This explains my memories of staying up late in high school: either lying in bed with my eyes open, or energized chatting away with my sister, all the while dreading the pre-6:00 a.m. alarm. Research indicates that during this biological change adolescents cannot fall asleep much before 11:00 p.m. and have a hard time waking up before 8:00 a.m.

However, implementing a change in school start time is not easy, and only a handful of studies have demonstrated the policy change to be effective at increasing adolescent sleep. Out of the 13,600 school districts in the U.S., only 80 have moved high school start times later. Many factors complicate the decision, including negotiating school district budgets, coordinating bus schedules, fielding parental concerns, and balancing students’ early afternoon extracurricular and job commitments.  Without more evidence around the costs and benefits of school start time changes, the debate continues to brew throughout the country. That is why Child Trends is currently evaluating how a later high school start time set to begin this school year in Fairfax County Public Schools, Va., one of the largest districts in the country, may affect, not only students’ sleep, but other outcomes such as academics, mood, stimulant use, and participation in sports. This work, funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, should produce evidence of whether investing in school start time change is effective at improving adolescent health.

I remember cherishing a short nap on the bus to school, and dreading the days when gym class was first-period. I’m sure neither I nor my parents realized how important those naps were, or that my less than cheerful demeanor was due to a biological shift. Ensuring sufficient adolescent sleep is key to ensuring academic, developmental, and emotional success, and the research shows that schools should be less willing to keep hitting the snooze button on this issue.