Delay school start times to help young people catch up on sleep

Adolescents are losing up to an hour of sleep a night more then they did ten years ago. Ed Yourdon/Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA

Sleep is the foundation of good health for all of us, especially during times of physical and mental development. But since adolescents are sleeping less these days, it may be time to delay school starting times to ensure young people can be productive and well at this important point in their lives.

Both physical and mental health both suffer when we don’t get enough sleep. And this particularly so for adolescents, who are going through puberty and all its attendant physical and mental development. But in a trend that has held for the last ten years young people in this age group have been losing up to one hour of sleep every school night.

The best remedy may be to let adolescents catch up on their sleep by allowing them to start school later.

Sleep at a delicate time

There’s a significant and important relationship between daytime performance, mental and physical health and sleep duration. In essence, the less young people sleep, the worse they fare in neuropsychological function (decreased attention and memory capacity and impaired learning), physiological function (increased risk of being overweight and obese, and reduced immune system function), and psychosocial function (increased aggression, withdrawn behaviours and mood disorders).

The causal relationship between these impacts and poor sleep is well established, and when sleep quantity and quality improve, negative outcomes are reversed. But the amount of sleep people across all population groups get has gradually reduced ever since the industrial revolution. That’s thanks to the arrival of electric light, which has enabled us to do more during night hours.

The internet and the advent of the 24-hour society, where technology and globalisation allow continuous access to activities have no doubt contributed to this trend. Social media usage, for instance, has had a major impact as young people displace sleep time with social networking activities that in their view may be more interesting than sleep.

The problem is that adolescence is accompanied by major changes in sleeping patterns. Starting at puberty, adolescents experience a delayed release of the sleep-inducing hormone, melatonin, relative to melatonin activity in middle childhood. As a result, they are sleepy later in the evening and tend to delay bedtimes, sometimes as much as two hours later.

This results in a shorter sleep periods than in middle childhood, but with little real change in sleep need. That’s why adolescents are often very tired and sleepy during the week and struggle to get up in time for school. In fact, 80% of adolescents report being sleepy on awakening in the morning before school.

Social media usage has had a major impact on young people who displace sleep time with social networking activities. Adam Fagen/Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA

Young people are still undergoing considerable brain growth at this age, for which adequate sleep is especially important. And they’re under pressure to undertake all sorts of activities expected of them to secure future success, as well as to cope well while doing them.

Sleep loss can have serious consequences on their academic performance, with higher incidences of school failure, and school dropout in adolescents with insufficient sleep. And it can also increase risk of depression, anxiety and stress, suicide attempts, and drug and alcohol abuse.

Radical but effective

One effective way to address this problem is to look for measures that can work across the whole of the adolescent population. And one such measure that deserves attention is delaying starting times for school. Research shows when school starts later, adolescents feel less sleepy, less moody and perform significantly better at their academic workload.

Some Australian schools have done just this for older adolescents, while others have staggered start times so students can choose between a few options. This allows students who are most affected by sleep deprivation to recuperate before facing the demands of their academic day.

But changes like this may be hindered by practical difficulties in implementation, which they need to be assessed against a cost-benefit analysis of consequences to families, school districts, and communities before wholesale implementation.

Delaying start times could result in some students not getting home until much later in the evening, for instance, and this would impact to family routines. How would families with children in both middle and senior school navigate the logistics of transporting them to school at different times?

And what could arguably be even more difficult is getting schools to address issues such as the curriculum re-scheduling and teacher workload.

What we do know is that adolescence is a time of high stress and academic pressure. Giving young people every chance to be the best they can requires good sleep and every opportunity to decrease its loss should be considered. Delaying the school starting times could deliver real benefits at a time in life when young people need a helping hand the most.